Bobby Harrell’s ears must have been burning Wednesday — and not just because he’s waylaid with the flu.
The Statehouse, which remains South Carolina’s biggest high school, was atwitter with gossip and speculation surrounding the news that a grand jury is going to investigate the House speaker on accusations that he misused campaign funds.
The forecasts range from Armageddon to “it’ll blow over,” but even the most optimistic have a worried look in their eyes.
His supporters claim the whole thing is probably just sloppy bookkeeping. His enemies crow that he’s getting his comeuppance, that the speaker had gotten too big for his purple robe. And a few vultures already are trying to pick out their new furniture for the speaker’s office. Which is classy.
And totally in character for that bunch.
On Monday, the eve of the General Assembly’s opening, state Attorney General Alan Wilson referred a nearly year-long probe of Harrell to a state grand jury. People close to the process insist that the timing was coincidental, but even Harrell’s political adversaries — and there are a few, to be sure — don’t buy it.
They say the timing was intended to inflict maximum political damage.
Because whatever happens — even if the grand jury does not indict him — some damage has been done.
Innocent until proven guilty is the law, but that law seldom applies in politics.
Take care of their own?
The Legislature is tribal by nature.
Members fight among themselves incessantly, but they often see an attack against one as an attack against all. They look at Harrell and think, There but for the grace of God ...
Notice that the Democrats have not used this to beat up the GOP.
Even Republicans who aren’t particularly close to Harrell take his side over the South Carolina Policy Council and its director, Ashley Landess, who made the complaint to Wilson’s office. But then, the Policy Council pretty much thinks the entire Legislature is corrupt, so that’s not real surprising.
Of course, Harrell isn’t beloved by everyone in his party (Gov. Nikki Haley, cough, cough), and some of them are taking great glee in his troubles. Some of the speaker’s loyalists claim their own party has fanned the flames of this investigation.
They say that Wilson was coerced by some Republicans to take a shot at Harrell for various offenses. He didn’t give them the committee assignment they wanted or blocked their pet project in the budget. A few of them simply yearn to be speaker.
Trouble is, even the conspiracy-minded concede that Wilson couldn’t order an investigation without SLED and a judge signing off. And, truth be told, Wilson isn’t much of a political hit man.
He’s more of a Boy Scout.
No one winning?
Whatever Wilson did, he was going to be criticized.
If he declared the investigation closed — nothing to see here — he would have been accused of covering for a fellow Republican.
He sends the investigation to the grand jury and, well, someone must have leaned on him to do it.
No one knows of any beef between Harrell and Wilson until now. They’ve stood together on some issues in the past. Since Monday, Wilson has been quiet — which he’s required to do — and Harrell has been combative.
Of course, Harrell isn’t acting — he’s mad. He has been telling friends for months that law enforcement officials repeatedly told him he had nothing to worry about. But some of his colleagues say his public reaction, egged on by political advisers, may have been too harsh.
Because the truth is, Wilson’s announcement doesn’t really change much — Harrell remains under investigation. If Wilson was confident there was something wrong, he would have simply asked for an indictment, not an investigation.
If anything, it sounds like he’s on the fence.
“All we can say for sure is that the attorney general has questions that can’t be answered through the normal investigatory process,” former state Attorney General Henry McMaster says.
It could be that Wilson is just covering his bases here, to avoid criticism that he presided over a whitewash.
And Harrell is doing his job, which is to make sure that people who don’t understand that process — which is most of them — don’t go ahead and convict him in the court of public opinion.
That goes for the state, and the Statehouse.
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561.