‘Nobody has gone down yet’

Government watchdogs and others had assumed the investigation into corruption in state government would continue after Bobby Harrell was convicted last year but have been disappointed by the slow progress in the year since the former House speaker was indicted.

COLUMBIA — A year ago this week, Bobby Harrell was heading for a fall that once would have been unimaginable.

The Charleston Republican was indicted on Sept. 10, and in little more than a month would plead guilty to misdemeanor ethics charges for misusing campaign funds for personal expenses. He would be sentenced to probation, stripped of his power as House speaker, resign from the Legislature and nearly lose his livelihood when the insurer for whom he was an agent dropped him.

As part of his plea deal, Harrell agreed to cooperate with any state and federal investigations into corruption in South Carolina government, prompting many to believe his conviction was the beginning of a new, more honest and transparent era at the Statehouse.

Except it didn’t happen.

The Legislature didn’t pass ethics reform so that lawmakers aren’t policing their own conduct. No more indictments followed.

And aside from being told by a House ethics panel last week that he owed the state about $113,000 for improperly using campaign funds to pay his defense attorneys, Harrell has stayed out of the public eye while quietly rebuilding his West Ashley insurance business as an independent agent.

For government watchdogs, like John Crangle of Common Cause and Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council, who pressured authorities into looking into Harrell’s expenditures, it’s been a frustrating year.

“I, like a lot of other South Carolinians, thought that there were going to be more heads to roll,” Crangle said. “And that Harrell was going to be the first of several corrupt politicians that were going to go down. But nobody has gone down yet.”

Said Landess, “Bobby Harrell was far from the only one clearly using his office to benefit himself. The plea agreement suggested there was more to come. I don’t think that alone was the driver of the expectation. We were told that there would be a broader investigation.”

A heavily redacted report released late last year by the State Law Enforcement Division indicated several other lawmakers were under suspicion.

But nothing happened until July, when state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office acknowledged in emails and letters that its investigation into corruption in state government had not progressed in the months following Harrell’s conviction.

In August, Wilson’s office handed off the part of the investigation involving lawmakers to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, the same Democratic prosecutor who took over the probe and indicted Harrell last year.

That astounded Crangle, who questioned why it wasn’t reassigned sooner.

“What the hell is going on over there when the guy that is supposed to be conducting the investigation doesn’t get the assignment for 10 months?” Crangle said. “Somebody dropped the football there.”

Mark Powell, the attorney general’s spokesman, dismissed Crangle’s criticism, saying he is “not in a position to know what he’s talking about.”

“Mr. Crangle has not bothered to meet with the Attorney General’s Office in well over a year to discuss this matter, and how the legal process works,” Powell said.

While initially taken by surprise by the handoff, Pascoe has said he intends to move forward with the investigation after reviewing the evidence provided by SLED.

Nonetheless, Crangle is worried Pascoe, who is responsible for prosecuting a myriad of crimes in his jurisdiction, including several high-profile homicides, doesn’t have the cash or the manpower to complete the investigation.

Harrell declined to comment on his conviction or the ongoing investigation. He said he had moved on from his Statehouse life and was concentrating on his business.

“My family and I are working hard and enjoying life these days,” he said in a previous email from last month. “That’s really all I have to say.”

Last week, he got pulled back in, however, when the House ethics panel hit him with an expensive judgment. Expecting his first grandchild’s arrival, Harrell said he only found out about the meeting when he was called by reporters seeking comment.

“I am told the committee met and discussed my campaign disclosure reports,” Harrell said in a written statement Tuesday. “In that meeting, the committee accused me of violating campaign laws, decided that I had done so, and took action. All of this was done without any notice to me of the meeting and without affording me the opportunity to be heard by the committee. This was a clear violation of my due process rights.”

If you ask Landess, however, Harrell “got off very easy” because the state’s ethics laws are so weak. And the Legislature has done little to ensure none of it happens again, she said.

The only major bill that became law because of Harrell’s case was one that restricted the ability of judges to block prosecutors from using grand juries as investigative tools. The House also passed a series of ethics-related bills early on during the 2015 legislative session, but they all died in the Senate. And the Senate’s omnibus reform bill died, as well.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, declined to comment for this story.

Gov. Nikki Haley has also made ethics reform a cornerstone of her second term, but has failed to get a majority behind her as well.

Landess was happy to see them fail.

“Every one of those bills was a weak excuse for reform,” Landess said. “What legislators were trying to do was ... create the appearance of reform while at the same time giving themselves loopholes. The entire ethics act is a sham, a disgrace, clearly written to protect the most powerful politicians.”

Landess said she and other organizations will continue to push for reforms that will clean up the state. She added that the public is more aware than ever about the concentration of power in Columbia.

But keeping the public’s interest on the subject long enough to enact change can prove difficult, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. People, in general, tend to have short attention spans.

“There are so many things competing for the public’s attention,” Knotts said. “It’s hard to stay focused on politics, much less stay focused on a specific issue related to politics. I don’t think this is something that every day, your average citizen thinks a lot about and focuses on trying to get policy changed.”

A series of scandals involving public officials — Harrell, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, ex-state Sen. Robert Ford and then-Gov. Mark Sanford — have all eroded trust in government, Knotts added.

“It’s people who are familiar and got elected with the current system who are the ones who have to change it,” Knotts said. “That’s always a challenge when you’re trying to get people to change something they came up with and are now in a position of power.”

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 577-7111.