MYRTLE BEACH - A long-running and contentious criminal ethics grand jury probe into S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has ended as the state's top prosecutor removed himself from the case and the state grand jury is no longer investigating, Harrell told a group of Republicans on Saturday.
Bobby Harrell's statement
AG Removes Himself From the Case; Grand Jury Investigation Ended
(Columbia, SC) Just days after the S.C. State Supreme Court ruled that Attorney General Alan Wilson had the authority to pursue his Grand Jury investigation of a citizen ethics complaint made against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Wilson removed himself from the case and the Grand Jury investigation was ended. In removing himself from the case, Wilson passed responsibility for any future dealings on the matter along to a Solicitor of his choosing. While these actions took place more than a month ago, no public notice was issued and the Attorney General's Office only recently notified Speaker Harrell's attorneys about these developments.
Speaker Harrell issued the following statement on these developments that took place more than a month ago but only recently were brought to light:
"My attorneys recently were informed that I am no longer the subject of a state Grand Jury investigation. The state Grand Jury expired June 30th and there is no longer any state Grand Jury investigation of me.
"It has also been confirmed to us that the Attorney General has removed himself from my case and appointed Solicitor David Pascoe to handle it. The AG made the decision to take these actions without any consultation or communication with my attorneys or me.
"It is important for everyone to understand that we did not know about these events until about a month after they occurred. The Attorney General's office notified us of his decisions on July 29th during a call between my attorney and a representative of the Attorney General.
"I have said from the beginning that I violated no law and have only sought an independent prosecutor free of political motives and influence. I hope these events accomplish that."
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Harrell broke the news to a closed-door meeting of House Republican Caucus members at the Grand Dunes Marriott in Myrtle Beach.
Behind the meeting-room's doors, brief periods of applause could be heard, apparently in response to Harrell's announcement.
Harrell emerged from the session and spoke briefly, reading from the statement he released statewide.
"My attorneys recently were informed that I am no longer the subject of a state Grand Jury investigation," Harrell said. "The state Grand Jury expired June 30th and there is no longer any state Grand Jury investigation of me."
Before returning to the meeting, Harrell briefly spoke exclusively with The Post and Courier.
"I said from the beginning I just wanted somebody to look at this who was independent and didn't have political motives," he said. "And I hope this accomplishes that."
Attorney General Alan Wilson removed himself from the case more than a month ago but Harrell's attorneys were not notified until July 29, Harrell said.
Harrell had been accused of using campaign funds for personal use and using his office to benefit his business, among other allegations. The Charleston Republican had long maintained his innocence and said the investigation was politically motivated.
At Wilson's direction, any further investigation in the case, if necessary, has been assigned to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, Harrell said. Pascoe, a Democrat whose circuit includes Dorchester, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties, did not immediately respond to multiple messages left on his cell phone.
Reached Saturday morning, Mark Powell, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office, said, "We are unable to comment because the Supreme Court order directs that we are not to disclose these matters."
The surprising turn of events ends weeks of speculation about where the case was headed next, and it hands a major victory to the embattled speaker.
In July, the state Supreme Court decisively gave Wilson free reign to pursue the case after Harrell's attorneys unsuccessfully argued that the allegations against him were not criminal and could not be investigated by the state grand jury. The justices' unanimous decision was seen as a blow to Harrell, and many speculated that the case would move forward quickly.
Wilson had publicly expressed confidence in the probe. In court, Wilson's deputies said that Harrell's conduct rose to the level of public corruption, the standard for launching a state grand jury investigation. They often pointed to an extensive 10-month state police investigation as the reason for launching the state grand jury probe.
The report produced by the State Law Enforcment Division, or SLED, was described as "voluminous."
The case has seen several twists and turns, starting in January after Wilson announced that he had referred the matter to the grand jury. Harrell called a press conference on the first day of the legislative session and was combative in defending himself.
When Harrell's attorneys won a victory in May by successfully arguing that the case should be tried first in front of the House Ethics Committee, Wilson defended the case before it went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately then sided with the attorney general.
"I did not make this decision by myself," Wilson said in the interview of whether to pursue the case. "I had five prosecutors, including the solicitor general. It was 100 percent unanimous what needed to happen next."
Wilson made similar comments statewide, including on talk radio. He said that the grand jury process should be able to get to the bottom of the allegations.
"No one has indicted or accused the speaker of anything," Wilson said on the Tara Servatius radio show on Charleston-based WTMA. "All we're doing is investigating. . We're just trying to do our job."
One hurdle remained to pursuing the case freely: Circuit Judge Casey Manning was expected to decide whether Wilson had a conflict of interest in the case and should be removed as prosecutor. Because Wilson apparently removed himself from the case soon after the state Supreme Court's decision was handed down, it seems that decision never became necessary.
But the expiratation of the state grand jury does not mean Harrell is out of the woods, said John Crangle, a Harrell critic and director of Common Cause of South Carolina.
"It doesn't mean that there might not be county grand juries going forward," Crangle said. "What Harrell has said, in my opinion, doesn't indicate that he's out of jeopardy."
Asked to comment on Harrell's statement, S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess said not enough details of what's going on have been released and warned that Harrell has "twisted reality more than once" since allegations against him were raised.
"I think we should all take what Speaker Harrell said with a big grain of salt," Landess said.
"We don't know what's going yet. Regardless of what happens with Bobby Harrell, it further underscores the need to seriously, dramatically overhaul the structure of our government. We're not letting that go."
The accusations against Harrell, formally filed with Wilson by the Policy Council in February 2013, documented several issues they wanted the attorney general to investigate. Landess said Harrell:
Used his office for his financial benefit or that of his family business;
Used campaign funds for personal purposes;
Failed to maintain required records documenting his campaign expenditures;
Adequately itemized campaign reimbursements as required by state law; and
Violated state law by appointing his brother to a state judicial screening panel.
A 2012 Post and Courier report raised some of the most significant issues. The report found that Harrell had reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign war chest since 2008 but lacked documentation for the expenses, the newspaper's examination found. Harrell, the report said, had reimbursed himself for many expenses and did not properly document the spending was proper.
Harrell later told the Associated Press he would be more careful with documentation but that all the expenses were related to his official duties and he had done nothing wrong.
"The way I've been doing it is within the law," Harrell told the AP in September 2012. "Going forward, I probably will be more specific."
The case cast a pall over the last legislative session. Political motivations were cited on an attempt at ethics reform and other measures as the feud between Harrell and Wilson played on in the background.
Harrell was never asked to step aside and no one publicly raised the issue. In an interview in March, Harrell said he would continue to fight the allegations and the investigation. "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," he said.
At Saturday's GOP meeting of lawmakers, several came to Harrell's defense.
"We're happy that after two years it appears that the end of all this is in sight," said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville.
Bannister doubted a House Ethics investigation of Harrell would be mounted either. "The reason is, they know there is not a real issue there."
Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Isle of Palms, said he didn't expect Pascoe's Democratic Party affiliation to be a factor as the probe goes ahead.
"I think that as a prosecutor, you've got to look at everything independently," he said.
Added Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, "Nobody would wish what Bobby and his family went through on anybody."