Harrell fires back House speaker: Accusations a 'blatant smear campaign'

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell spoke with news reporters at the Statehouse Tuesday to respond to a report that the state's attorney general is referring an ethics investigation into Harrell's conduct to the statewide grand jury.

COLUMBIA — House Speaker Bobby Harrell fired back Tuesday at the man who has prolonged and widened the investigation into whether the powerful longtime leader abused his position for personal gain.

Harrell, R-Charleston, told reporters an hour before the beginning of the 2014 legislative session that Attorney General Alan Wilson's announcement Monday that a grand jury would consider a long-running ethics complaint against him should not have been made and was politically motivated.

He said the investigation — announced the day before the session — shows that election-year politics had trumped a fair review.

Harrell repeated his claim that Wilson, also a Republican, notified the media before calling his attorney, which Wilson's office has denied.

“The facts still are that I have not broken the law,” Harrell said. He called the charges against him a “blatant smear campaign” and also called on Wilson's office to release a State Law Enforcement Division report on the matter.

He said he has not seen the report, but he believes that the review, previously described as “voluminous,” would prove his innocence.

At Wilson's request, state police began looking at the case after S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who runs the libertarian-leaning think tank, filed a complaint about a year ago alleging that Harrell used his influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business, The Associated Press reported.

“We applaud Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel for doing their job and refusing to waver in the face of political pressure,” Landess said in a statement.

Landess 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allegations stem from a 2012 Post and Courier report that raised accusations that Harrell couldn't account for money withdrawn from his campaign, and that he had used his campaign account for personal expenses.

The newspaper's report pointed to generic descriptions Harrell gave on quarterly campaign filings to explain his reimbursements.

Harrell said at that time that he followed the state ethics law, which requires forms to provide a “brief description” of each expense, and that he would be more specific going forward.

After the newspaper report, Harrell allowed the AP to review receipts that he said accounted for all but just under $23,000 of the roughly $280,000 he reimbursed himself from campaign funds. Harrell returned the $23,000 to his campaign account, telling a House ethics panel in a letter that while he believes the expenses were legitimate, he doesn't have the receipts to support them.

Other news organizations have asked Harrell to release his receipts to them for review, and many asked at the news conference Tuesday why he would not do so. “I would expect that to be a part of the SLED report,” Harrell said. “I think everything needs to be shown in context.”

Wilson spokesman, Mark Powell, said Monday that the report and other documents cannot be released because they remain relevant to the investigation.

Harrell also said Tuesday that the investigation would not make him or the House any less effective.

“This mudslinging didn't distract the House from having a productive session last year, and it won't stop the House from advancing the major reforms we're taking on this year either,” Harrell said. “I'm not distracted. The House isn't distracted. But the AG needs to release the SLED report now.”

John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, said he has for years raised concerns about Harrell's conduct. “If I was him, I would temporarily step aside. He's under a cloud.”

Not long after he met with reporters, Harrell was back on the House floor hugging and shaking hands with members as they greeted each other for the first time this year. In a quick session, Harrell dispatched bills to committees and brought the House to order in a booming voice to recognize speakers.

If talk of the investigation was percolating behind closed doors, lawmakers did not want to discuss it in public. Some declined to comment, while others said they were supporting Harrell, despite the accusations.

“I'm not even going to go there,” said Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “He's my speaker. He's my friend and always has been.”

Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, also deferred on the issue. “We'll watch this play out as we have in the past,” she told reporters after speaking at a South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee meeting.

She also would not say whether Harrell should step aside. “I'll leave that up to the Legislature,” she said.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, Haley's likely opponent in this year's gubernatorial election, spoke at the same committee meeting and afterward declined to comment on Harrell's news conference.

“I think that it has to play itself out at this point,” Sheheen, D-Camden, said. “I don't know enough to comment on it.”

Harrell had been scheduled to attend the same event but canceled because of an illness that's been plaguing him, his spokesman said.

Democrats also were reluctant to pounce. “Anybody that is simply under investigation, it doesn't mean anything,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader. “He should continue as he planned.”