Ethics committee orders former House Speaker Bobby Harrell to repay misused campaign funds, pay fine

Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell appears Tuesday before the Legislative Ethics Committee with his attorney Mark Peper.

COLUMBIA — Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell has 180 days to pay more than $113,000 in campaign money he’s been accused of using improperly to pay for legal fees during his criminal ethics-related case, a panel of lawmakers said Tuesday.

On the recommendation of House Legislative Ethics Committee attorney Deborah Barbier, the group ruled Harrell must repay the $113,475, as well as pay a $1,000 fine. Barbier also recommended the panel publicly reprimand Harrell.

The unanimous decision cannot be appealed, according to an agreement the Charleston Republican and his attorney made with the committee.

“I’m disappointed,” Harrell said after the ruling. “I don’t agree with the decision that’s been made, but I do very much appreciate the committee finally giving us an opportunity to come up and state our side publicly.”

Harrell and his attorney, Mark Peper, argued Harrell did not use the money in an improper fashion because once the investigation moved from being an issue of ethics to a criminal one, campaign funds were no longer used to pay legal fees, Peper said.

“This matter was always simply an ethics violation issue,” Peper said during Tuesday’s hearing. “That’s why he (Harrell) hired the attorneys. That’s why he incurred legal fees from these two attorneys.”

According to an ethics committee opinion from 2013, lawmakers are permitted to use campaign funds for legal fees to defend themselves against ethics accusations. The panel deemed Harrell’s use of campaign funds inappropriate because he pleaded guilty in 2014 to six counts of misusing money from his account.

Barbier said regardless of how the investigation began, Harrell admitted wrongdoing in court.

“Once he’s made those admissions in court, and admitted to that personal misconduct, he had the obligation — in my opinion — to repay his campaign account,” she said. “As part of his plea agreement, he agreed to forfeit all of his campaign account to the state of South Carolina. So this committee’s action requiring him to repay those amounts that were paid in attorney’s fees is consistent with that plea agreement.”

Peper argued that repaying the campaign expenses would be an additional financial burden on top of the legal fees he incurred during the ethics case.

“He doesn’t have $113,000,” Peper said. “He has $608,000 (in other legal fees) that’s slowly being paid off from his personal funds.”

Ethics committee member Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said he was sorry to have to accept Barbier’s recommendations.

“In light of this entire matter that’s before us, and the issues that we’ve all dealt with, and the effect that these actions have had on the former Speaker of the House, and the fact that he’s a personal friend make this very difficult,” Pitts said.

On Sept. 1, the panel gave Harrell 30 days to repay the campaign money to the state’s general fund. The deadline for repayment passed without Harrell responding, except to say he hadn’t been notified of the hearing or properly ordered to make repayment.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.