In a span of about an hour, Bobby Harrell went from defending himself at a hastily called news conference to donning a purple robe and presiding over the House of Representatives.
At an 11 a.m. news conference, Rep. Harrell reiterated how he’d felt blindsided by Attorney General Alan Wilson’s grand jury announcement yesterday. Harrell added that he thought Wilson’s office would clear him of any wrongdoing. That wasn’t to be. Wilson has handed over the investigation into possible criminal or ethics violations by Harrell to a grand jury. Now, 18 randomly-chosen jurors will hear evidence against the House Speaker stemming from a State Law Enforcement Division inquiry into whether he improperly reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his campaign account, abused his power, and used his public office for personal gain.
Like many, Harrell questioned the timing of the announcement, saying he didn’t believe “that it is a coincidence that this release was made on the eve of the legislative session.”
It’s rare for a politician under investigation in South Carolina to hold a news conference and impugn the integrity of a prosecutor. Typically both sides work behind the scenes on a deal and keep the public comments about each other to a minimum.
Harrell also said he wants Wilson to release the SLED report, but Wilson’s office says they can’t do that. However, when reporters asked Harrell today if he would release his own records, the Speaker said he would not, which highlights the possibility that he is engaging in a bit of political theater.
As it stands, political narratives are beginning to form about how the Harrell investigation is playing out. They focus on two questions. Is Wilson serious about prosecuting a powerful fellow Republican who might have broken the law, or is all of this merely an orchestrated show to make it seem like justice is taking its course? Perhaps the grand jury will come back with nothing and Harrell and Wilson hold a joint news conference saying how all this shows how vague and ambiguous the state’s ethics laws are. Hence, ethics reform!
South Carolina’s Common Cause chapter president John Crangle, a government watchdog whose followed decades of political scandals here, doesn’t think Wilson would set up a grand jury as a way to soften any potential blow against Harrell.
“That would be like inviting somebody to Thanksgiving and serving them frankfurters and sauerkraut,” Crangle says. “It would be extremely amateurish for a prosecutor to take it to a grand jury and come back with nothing. It would be an absolute showing of incompetence.”
Regardless, Harrell came out swinging today, but he still could be holding some trump cards. The attorney general might be standing on some wobbly legs of his own when it comes to campaign finance issues. Back in March, around the time Wilson chose to take on the Harrell probe, reporters uncovered that Wilson had failed to report about $130,000 in campaign funds from his last race. Wilson’s people called it a mistake by a campaign worker, hashed out a deal with the State Ethics Commission, and paid no fines. But it was an embarrassing black eye for the man in charge of prosecuting campaign finance cases.
Meanwhile, Democrats don’t seem to want to get involved. The state Democratic Party has not put out a formal statement, and chairman Jaimie Harrison had little to say about the matter when asked. “We’ll see what the grand jury does,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described Harrell’s robe as blue.