As the annual Statehouse session gets underway, the ethics questions hanging over House Speaker Bobby Harrell are taking center stage.
Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office announced Monday the probe into Harrell’s conduct has been referred to a state grand jury, where it will be evaluated behind closed doors for possible wrongdoing.
Harrell, R-Charleston, issued his own statement later in the day expressing disappointment that Wilson notified the press before contacting him or his attorneys of the decision, an assertion that was denied by the Attorney General’s office.
Harrell went on to say he was caught off guard by the move, saying it “contradicts every indication” that state investigators had given to him on the progress of the probe.
“I have cooperated fully and voluntarily with this investigation, provided access to everything they requested and met with investigators for several interviews,” Harrell said.
“At every stage of this investigation it was reiterated to us that investigators have found no areas of concern. Given every indication we have received from SLED and the Attorney General, I am disappointed and shocked by this sudden change of course.”
Harrell then called on the attorney general to release the entire file collected by the State Law Enforcement Division.
“This report contains the facts of this matter, facts that have been kept from the public and even kept from my attorneys and me.”
Harrell is still expected to gavel the S.C. House of Representatives into session Tuesday.
Wilson, a Republican, last month began reviewing the SLED report on the Harrell matter, with his office describing the file as “voluminous.”
Mark Powell, a spokesman for the attorney general, declined to comment specifically on the case but agreed to describe the process. Eighteen state grand jurors are empaneled for a year. The grand jury has the ability to subpoena individuals and documents. Twelve of the 18 grand jurors must vote to indict. There is no timeline for such an inquiry, he said.
“A grand jury investigation is not an indication of guilt or innocence,” Powell also said.
He rejected Harrell’s call for the file to be released publicly, saying it remains relevant to the investigation.
“We cannot and will not release any SLED report, or any other documents,” he said.
“Moreover, Speaker Harrell’s attorney was notified by phone at least 30 minutes before the media advisory was released. These are the facts, and we will have no further comment.”
Democrats did not immediately seize on the matter. “Don’t we have a system that says we are innocent until proven guilty?” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
The investigation into Harrell’s conduct dates back almost a year, including when S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess filed a complaint raising the issue of whether Harrell used his campaign account and legislative office for personal gain.
Landess, who runs the Policy Council as a nonprofit libertarian-leaning think tank, alleged — among other things — that Harrell may have used his office to benefit a family business and utilized campaign funds for personal use.
Harrell has called the complaint “a baseless attack that is driven by personal and political vendetta.”
Other allegations stemmed from a 2012 Post and Courier report that raised accusations 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’d followed state ethics law, which requires forms provide a “brief description” of each expense, and that he’d be more specific going forward.
After the newspaper report, Harrell allowed The Associated Press 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.
State law allows public officials to use campaign donations for campaigning or expenses related to their office duties, which for Harrell are broad.
Former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Republican who is not a part of the Harrell probe, said the announcement that the grand jury is involved probably indicates Wilson has more questions about Harrell’s conduct before deciding how to proceed.
“The purpose is always to get more answers to questions,” McMaster said. He called the grand jury “an investigative tool.”
McMaster added that it would be wrong to presume a criminal indictment was necessarily coming.
“It could be or it could not be,” McMaster said. “It could go either way.”
Harrell has spent 20 years in the Legislature, serving as speaker since 2005.
As recently as least week, he declined to address the investigation directly, opting to not answer a question about the probe during a meeting with members of the South Carolina news media.
In a phone interview from Columbia, Landess said Monday the disclosure that the attorney general’s office is moving forward to a grand jury indicates “we don’t have any concerns about it being a whitewash.” She added “this is an indicator they are taking this very seriously.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.