COLUMBIA - Not long after S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell left a Richland County courtroom on Friday, the embattled Republican said he would continue to fight a long-running ethics probe into his conduct and the political motivations he believes are driving it.
Harrell, R-Charleston, said no one, Republican or Democrat, has asked him to step aside and he has no plans to do so. "I think I have to stay in the fight because what's happened to me and my family is not right," he said in a one-on-one interview with The Post and Courier. "It is incredibly important to me to make sure everybody knows that my family's reputation that has been earned over generations should be as good as it's always been."
Friday's court hearing dealt with whether Attorney General Alan Wilson improperly threatened Harrell through an intermediary as the state's top prosecutor dealt with a long-running ethics complaint into the speaker. Harrell and his attorneys have asked a judge to remove Wilson from the case, a decision that is expected to be made next week.
"Alan Wilson has a major conflict and has done some things that make it hard for him to be impartial as he's pursuing this," Harrell said. "I'm not trying to stop it from happening, I'm trying to get a prosecutor who will be impartial to take up the case." He said any state solicitor could be impartial and complete the investigation properly.
Harrell said that Wilson delivered a clear message when his chief of staff, Brad Wright, came back to the office after a meeting with Wilson in April 2013.
Wilson wanted legislation to pass in the House of Representatives that would create a Public Integrity Unit, which would allow for more state agencies, including the attorney general's office, to oversee the investigation of ethics complaints. Harrell had raised concerns about such a unit. He said Friday his principal concern was that any elected official, in this case the attorney general, would have a say over ethics matters. However, he said he later voted for an ethics bill that passed the House last year that included such a unit.
A new Senate version of the bill does not include the unit, and Harrell has no plans to support it.
Wilson had made clear in the meeting that he wanted Harrell to know he was extending an "olive branch." At the time, Wilson had recently referred an ethics complaint against Harrell to state police.
"When it looked like a vote might not go well . he tells (my) chief of staff 'remember everything you can,'" from the closed door meeting between the attorney general and Wright, Harrell said. "And one of those things is an olive branch? You answer that question. An olive branch for what?"
Harrell said that Wilson has repeatedly sought for the investigation into him to be played out in the press and public and is using the case for political leverage. "I think because I wasn't supporting legislation that mattered so much to him - among other reasons," Harrell said.
He said Wilson's office has asked him for his personal tax returns and credit card statements for him and his family, which he believes go beyond the scope of the ethics complaint against him.
In January, when Wilson referred the ethics complaint against Harrell to a state grand jury, his office issued a press release saying they were doing so.
And last week, The (Columbia) State newspaper published a report, citing anonymous sources, that Harrell's lawyers were seeking to have Wilson thrown off the case in a secretly scheduled hearing.
Wilson issued a statement to the newspaper: "The Attorney General's Office is strongly opposing both the request for a closed hearing and any disqualification of the attorney general," the statement said.
Public statements about what should be a secret investigation support Harrell's assertion that Wilson is seeking to use the investigation for his own political purposes, Harrell contends.
Wilson's office declined to comment beyond his court testimony Friday. Wilson testified that he never threatened the speaker and had hoped to convey to the speaker that he was simply doing his job by referring the investigation to the SLED investigators.
The investigation is "not personal," he said. "It was my job. . I wanted him to know I have no ill will toward Speaker Harrell. I still have no ill will toward Speaker Harrell."
Adversaries have painted a different picture of Harrell's conduct. They say the speaker, perhaps the state's most powerful politician, has long abused his position. State police began looking at an ethics complaint into him after S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who runs the libertarian-leaning think tank, alleged that Harrell used his influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business, among other issues. Landess has said Harrell has more power than any other South Carolina politician and possibly "more unchecked power than any other American politician. ... It was precisely because the Speaker refused to address the troubling pattern of abuse of power that we had no choice but to force the system to do so."
Other allegations stem from a 2012 Post and Courier report that raised questions about Harrell's accounting for money withdrawn from his campaign and his use of his campaign account for personal expenses, including billing his campaign account for travel on his personal plane.
Harrell has repeatedly said all of those actions are well within the law. He also said he does not expect the state grand jury to indict him and again called on authorities to release a SLED report into the matter. He said he has not seen the report but he thinks it will exonerate him.
"My family has endured a totally unfair attack on our reputation," Harrell said, "and we're fighting back as hard as we can to prove our attackers wrong."