Harrell says he won’t immediately pay ethics order

Bobby Harrell

Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell doesn’t plan to immediately pay $113,475 that a state ethics panel says he owes, but there’s little lawmakers can do about it for now.

The House Ethics Committee sent Harrell a letter dated Sept. 1 giving their former colleague 30 days to pay back money he used from his campaign fund to cover legal expenses defending himself against ethics charges that eventually cost him his legislative seat.

Harrell missed Thursday’s deadline and said he’s still considering his options.

“We’re looking at it and determining how we should proceed,” Harrell told The Post and Courier. “I expect to make a decision in the next few weeks.”

Lawmakers are permitted to use campaign funds for legal fees to defend themselves against ethics accusations, but Harrell’s use of campaign funds was deemed inappropriate — in this instance — by the ethics committee because he pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

But, Harrell’s in no immediate danger of having anyone try to collect the debt or put a lien on his property because the letter essentially amounts to a creditor claiming a bill is overdue.

Committee Chairman Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said the next step, if Harrell doesn’t pay the debt, is to schedule the matter for discussion at an upcoming committee meeting, possibly later this month.

Bingham said the Harrell case is considered new ground for the committee in terms of determining a debt owed by a former speaker. If the ethics committee chooses, they can vote to pursue the debt through legal avenues, but would also likely provide a forum for Harrell to present his side.

John Crangle, of the public watchdog group Common Cause in South Carolina, said he expects the House committee would try to force him to pay the money. “The House members feel like their credibility is at stake,” he said.

Two of the paths the committee could take, Crangle said, is getting the Department of Revenue to dock his wages or income tax refunds, or refer the matter to the Attorney General’s office.

Previously one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, Harrell pleaded guilty in October to six counts of misusing money from his campaign account. He resigned from his West Ashley seat and was spared jail under his plea deal. He was placed on probation and barred from holding public office for three years, in addition to having to turn over any remaining cash in his campaign fund.

The panel’s decision to order the payment does not affect Harrell’s probation. The money would go to the state’s General Fund.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.