COLUMBIA - The General Assembly and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson have a chance to shine a light on legislators' conduct in Columbia with ethics-related cases against two prominent Charleston leaders, experts say.
The ethics complaints against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Republican, and former Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat, are different cases at different stages. Ford's case, for one, has already been mostly hashed out by the Senate Ethics Committee, while allegations against Harrell are mired in a protracted court fight and back-and-forth between Harrell and Wilson. No charges have been filed against Harrell, while Ford was fined $30,000 plus nearly $15,000 in restitution Wednesday, and extensive documentation regarding his misuse of campaign funds was turned over to Wilson's office for review.
Both cases involve questions over the misuse of campaign funds for personal purposes.
The cases come as the General Assembly has undertaken an ethics reform overhaul at the behest of Gov. Nikki Haley and others. The cases against the Charleston leaders could help spur momentum for ethics reform, and they also represent an important test for Wilson, said John Crangle, director of the advocacy group Common Cause. He said the ethics troubles surrounding both men represent an opportunity for Wilson to keep his determination to see public corruption cases through, even as they come surrounded by land mines.
"I think the Ford case has boxed (Wilson) in," said Crangle. "He could not investigate Ford, a black Democrat, and not do something about Harrell, a white Republican."
Crangle said the cases actually reinforce each other in the eyes of the public and Wilson's role as the state's top prosecutor.
Wilson has "got to deal with both now and I think he has to deal with them both pretty harshly," Crangle said. "Wilson can't possibly back away from this thing."
He also said that the cases give the General Assembly a reason to set up an independent body to investigate legislators, a key goal for many ethics champions, including Haley.
Mark Powell, a spokesman for Wilson, said Wednesday that the case against Ford was under review and new allegations had not yet been received. Wilson said in an interview this week that he would continue to pursue an investigation into Harrell's conduct and would appeal a court order saying he could not.
Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston politics professor, said both cases could affect the ethics reform debate. "(The) Bobby Harrell and Robert Ford violations surfacing at the same time could give ethics reform some momentum," she said.
"However, I don't know that it's enough to encourage real ethics reform by the people who would be most affected by it. We're dependent on the Legislature to create this reform, and at the end of the day it's unlikely you'll see it happen."
Voters care about scandals like pay-for-play schemes where favors or bribes are given for votes, said Gibbs Knotts, a politics professor at C of C. Nothing like that has surfaced in the cases against Ford or Harrell.
"It's sufficiently confusing," Knotts said of the Harrell case. "When it's talking about receipts and spending... it certainly is something to be concerned about, but it's not the trade for votes that really stands out in voters' minds."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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