COLUMBIA - House Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted by a grand jury Wednesday on nine ethics and misconduct charges, sparking calls from the governor and others for him to step aside from his leadership post until his legal troubles play out.
In an announcement that caught much of the state cold in its quick timing, Harrell was accused of a string of misdemeanor violations of state law, including charges that he doctored flight records, reimbursed himself for flights that he didn't take and unlawfully paid himself tens of thousands of dollars from his campaign account.
The charges were filed by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who inherited the Harrell case just weeks ago from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
In all, they cover seven Ethics Act violations for using campaign funds for personal expenses, while two additional charges cover allegations of misconduct in office.
All of the charges against Harrell are considered misdemeanors, but one misconduct in office charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison. If convicted on all counts, the Charleston Republican faces a maximum sentence of 18 years in prison and close to $40,000 in fines.
Harrell did not return calls Wednesday but issued a statement saying he "never intentionally violated any law, and I still strongly believe that statement to be accurate."
He added, "In no way have I ever benefited personally or financially from travel reimbursements from my campaign account. In fact, I have regularly used the privately raised funds from my campaign account to pay for official state travel instead of passing that cost along to taxpayers."
Harrell also said he used his airplane, at no expense to taxpayers, for official state travel instead of using a taxpayer-funded plane.
His statement did not address whether he would fight the charges or fight to stay in office, but added, "If, over the course of four years, I mistakenly wrote down the wrong date on a handful of items, that is something that can easily be addressed."
The indictments caused some Republicans and Democrats to urge Harrell to surrender his post as House speaker, which he has held since 2005, while other leaders were more tempered in their reaction.
Gov. Nikki Haley joined the list of those calling on Harrell to step down. When asked if Haley thought Harrell should resign his post, spokesman Doug Mayer answered "yes" but would not comment further
"I think at the very least he should step aside until he works this thing out," said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston.
Merrill added that "people are innocent until proven guilty," but that the House pro tempore, the House's second-in-command, Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, could step in, as the process would allow.
Lucas said he expects Harrell to step aside but said he empathizes with the speaker.
"Obviously we were shocked and have a great deal of empathy for the Harrell family and what they're going through," Lucas said. "You certainly don't wish this upon anybody."
State law calls on Harrell to essentially suspend himself because he has been indicted for a crime that carries a more than two-year sentence, Lucas said. "The speaker would have to suspend himself as a member of the House," he said. "I fully expect the speaker to comply with the statute."
While the Legislature is not in session, Lucas said he would perform any duties of the House speaker until a new speaker can be chosen in November.
Democrats also chimed in. "This culture of corruption in South Carolina has to stop," said state party Chairman Jaime Harrison. "Leaders on both sides of the aisle must be held accountable for ethical wrongdoing. Elected officials who break the law hurt the reputation of our great state and feed into the general mistrust of the state government."
Democratic gubernatorial contender Vincent Sheheen issued a statement saying South Carolina needs leaders who "want to abide by the letter and the spirit of the law and earn the trust of the people who elected them."
"I believe that at this time it is appropriate for Speaker Harrell to step down from his position pending the outcome of this situation," he added.
Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, are looking into what the law requires before publicly commenting, said Tyler Jones, spokesman for S.C. House Democrats.
The nine charges come after Attorney General Wilson earlier this summer turned over the case to Pascoe after Harrell and Wilson had publicly traded barbs for months over whether the investigation was politically motivated. Pascoe announced that he had found evidence of wrongdoing after taking the case to a grand jury in Richland County.
A bond hearing date for Harrell has not yet been set.
Specifically, the charges allege that Harrell:
Reimbursed himself for "non-existent" round-trip flights from Charleston to Columbia on Jan. 8, 2009; March 13, 2009; May 4, 2009; and Sept. 9, 2009. Harrell claimed the trips were official trips on campaign finance disclosure forms. Harrell faces separate charges for each alleged made-up flight.
Unlawfully paid himself $70,286 from his campaign account, which appears to have been used to pay an assistant at his private business. "Defendant claimed these expenditures were for an administrative assistant when in fact the Defendant gained an unlawful personal benefit," the indictment says.
Committed misconduct in office. The indictment alleges Harrell from around Jan. 1, 2009, through Jan. 10, 2013, used campaign funds to benefit himself and breached his "duty of good faith an accountability to the public."
Committed misconduct in office. For the same dates as above, an indictment alleges that Harrell "knowingly committed" crimes by misrepresenting travel and other expenditures.
Falsely reported campaign expenditures. The indictment says Harrell spent about $1 million between 2009 and 2012. Of that total, Harrell reimbursed himself $294,335 and claimed legislative or campaign expenses. According to court papers, $93,958 was used for Harrell's private airplane. Also, $70,286 was paid to an administrative assistant for the speaker's private State Farm business, the indictment alleges. Some travel reimbursed for $96,381 was personal, according to court papers.
Harrell also used that money to "pay for goods or services for his home, family and friends" unrelated to his official duties, prosecutors allege. The speaker also sought to cover up the payments by changing entries in his pilot logbook, creating schedules of flights for the basis of payments and "misinforming" law enforcement and the House Ethics Committee about the reasons behind the reimbursements.
In March 2009, Harrell allegedly traveled and reimbursed himself $3,874 to fly to a high school baseball tournament in Florida. He allegedly marked the trip as "legislative travel." The indictment characterizes the trip as being on his private airplane that carried himself, friends and family.
One of Harrell's attorneys, Bart Daniel of Charleston, released a statement noting that even the most severe of the charges are misdemeanors.
The indictments represent a quick turn of events after Harrell told Republicans during a retreat to Myrtle Beach last month that a state grand jury investigation into his conduct had come to an end and that Wilson had stepped aside from the case.
For months, Harrell had argued that Wilson, also a Republican and the state's top prosecutor, had political motives in pursuing the case and that the investigation should be headed by an impartial prosecutor.
That's when Wilson sent the case to Pascoe, a Democrat who oversees prosecutions in Dorchester, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties.
"At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations," Pascoe said Wednesday in a statement. "Mr. Harrell is presumed innocent until proven guilty." He declined further comment.
Harrell's conduct has been the subject of scrutiny for months. He has been accused of using campaign funds for personal use and using his office to benefit his business, among other allegations raised by a 2012 Post and Courier report and by the South Carolina Policy Council in a February 2013 complaint.
The Policy Council, a limited-government advocacy group in Columbia, issued a statement saying it was encouraged the alleged misconduct is now in the courts.
"The most important thing now is that this politician, who has so flagrantly and obviously abused his power, not been allowed to continue in office," said group communications director Barton Swain. "We take no pleasure in seeing corruption exposed in the South Carolina General Assembly. For us, despite what Speaker Harrell has repeatedly claimed, this has never been about one politician."
John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause South Carolina, said he was puzzled by the indictments because it appears that Harrell could have faced stiffer charges given the allegations. "It's a very strange mismatch between what he's accused of doing ... and what he's being charged for," said Crangle, an attorney. "The indictment is disappointing because it is not nearly as severe an indictment as it should be."
The indictments also come as Harrell faces re-election to his West Ashley seat in the Statehouse on Nov. 4 against Democrat Mary Tinkler, who on Wednesday called for Harrell to step aside from the speaker's post.
"The people of South Carolina deserve to have public officials not distracted by ongoing criminal proceedings," she said.
While Harrell is in a safe Republican district, these charges won't help, College of Charleston political science chairman Gibbs Knotts said. "Politically, this certainly damages the speaker," he said. "Scandals involving financial matters can be the most debilitating to elected officials and the most difficult to recover from."
Robert Behre contributed to this report.