Any hope that an ethics complaint against South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell would be quickly resolved this year was dispelled by the decision to send the case to the state grand jury. That development suggests that the issues in question are more complicated than they initially appeared.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson sent the results of a State Law Enforcement Division investigation to the grand jury for further review on Monday, the day before the legislative session began.
The timing could best be described as curious. For the speaker, the timing could hardly have been worse.
On Tuesday, the opening day of the legislative session, the headlines were dominated by developments on an ethics complaint brought against the speaker early last year.
Indeed, Rep. Harrell, R-Charleston, took an exceedingly dim view of the matter, insisting that the action was politically motivated.
But Mr. Wilson and Rep. Harrell are both Republicans, and as far as we know they haven’t been adversaries — at least until now.
Under the law, both the attorney general and the director of SLED had to sign off on the decision to send the matter to the grand jury, which will decide whether to seek an indictment.
At issue is a complaint contending that Mr. Harrell used his office for personal gain, and that he improperly used campaign funds.
A 2012 Post and Courier report raised questions about the speaker’s use of campaign funds, including $23,000 in expenditures for which he could not provide receipts, and for which he reimbursed his campaign account. He says the paperwork was lost in a move of his insurance office.
SLED reportedly has a thick file for the grand jury to consider, and Mr. Harrell has demanded that SLED make the material public. But a spokesman for the attorney general notes that once the case is in the hands of the grand jury, the file is for its eyes only. The grand jury meets behind closed doors.
Mr. Harrell has the option of releasing the documents in his possession, though obviously he doesn’t have a file comparable to the one that was delivered to the grand jury.
The complaint, made by Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, was submitted 11 months ago. And while it is to be hoped that the grand jury can expedite its work, the fact is that it typically can take weeks, and even months, to hear testimony, complete an investigation and decide on the findings.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harrell said that the recent turn of events won’t hamper his ability to lead the state House of Representatives. We applaud Mr. Harrell’s determination to focus on the job at hand in the face of what has to be a major distraction.
There’s important work to be done this session, and Mr. Harrell’s leadership as speaker is essential if the Legislature is to advance a meaningful agenda, even as this investigation enters a new and unexpected phase.