To say this past week has been a rocky one for House Speaker Bobby Harrell would be an understatement. The Charleston Republican completely lost his cool in the wake of news that he’ll face a state grand jury in an ongoing investigation about whether he abused his power.
For more than a year, reporters and law enforcers have dogged Harrell about whether he’d improperly reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds and otherwise used his public office for personal gain.
It was last winter when the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) began investigating the speaker after Ashley Landess, president of the limited-government think tank S.C. Policy Council, filed an ethics complaint. In it she asked Wilson to find out if Harrell used his office for financial gain and campaign funds for personal purposes or used his powerful position to help boost his pharmaceutical company. Prior to that, the Post and Courier reported that Harrell had reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, with much of it going to operate a private airplane he pilots. SLED agents finished an initial inquiry last month and gave their report to Wilson.
Up until last Thursday, Harrell had appeared in total control as SLED agents investigated the complaint against him. The speaker insisted he had broken no laws. He hired two of the best defense attorneys in the state when it comes to dealing with public corruption charges. He calmed his Republican colleagues, indicating that he’d likely be cleared of any wrongdoing. He quieted the press, delivering no comment on the rare occasion a reporter asked for an update. Throughout the process, the influential Republican even avoided taking pot shots from Democrats, who quiver at the power he holds.
But that ended Jan. 13, the day before Harrell was to gavel lawmakers into the start of this year’s legislative session. Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson dropped a bombshell: he would impanel a state grand jury to further investigate Harrell.
The news left the House speaker reeling and a statement not long after Wilson’s announcement, Harrell showed he’d been rattled.
“At every stage of this investigation it was reiterated to us that investigators have found no areas of concern,” Harrell said. “Given every indication we have received from SLED and the Attorney General, I am disappointed and shocked by this sudden change of course.”
Harrell also accused Wilson of running to the press about the news before contacting Harrell’s attorneys. However, Wilson’s office denies the charge. According to the AG’s spokesman Mark Powell, “Mr. Harrell’s attorney was contacted at least 30 minutes prior to the release going out.” When asked about the discrepancy, Harrell’s lawyer, Bart Daniel, declined to answer, telling the City Paper it’s the media’s job to play referee. Not to be outdone, Harrell made his own stunning move, asking Wilson to make his SLED case file public, something the AG’s office says it can’t and won’t do.
The following day, in the span of about an hour, Harrell went from defending himself at a hastily called news conference to presiding over the House of Representatives.
At an 11 a.m. news conference Jan. 14 in Columbia, Harrell reiterated how he’d felt “blindsided” by Wilson’s grand jury announcement. He added that he thought, if anything, Wilson’s office would clear him of any wrongdoing.
“I also don’t believe that it was a coincidence that this release was made on the eve of the legislative session,” he said. “I believe it was intended to inflict political damage to me.”
(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.)
In his news conference, Harrell again called on the AG to release the SLED report. However, when reporters asked him if he would release his own records, the Speaker said he would not.
As it stands, political narratives are starting 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 will 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 who’s 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.”
Since the grand jury announcement Harrell has come out swinging, but he still could be holding some trump cards. As Harrell is undoubtably aware, 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.
Here are six takeaways from Harrell’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week:
The investigation just got worse for Harrell
The state grand jury has much more subpoena power than SLED, and that means it can get documents and records easier. Also, the grand jury can put witnesses under oath, while SLED agents can’t compel anyone to talk to them if they don’t want to.
Timing is important
Why would this news come just one day before the start of this year’s legislative session? Maybe it’s Wilson’s way of sending a message to Harrell and the rest of the state that the attorney general’s office isn’t messing around. The drama about whether or not Wilson contacted one of Harrell’s lawyers before alerting the press only adds to the tension between the two parties.
A grand jury is a safe place for Wilson, a dangerous one for Harrell
By handing over the investigation to a grand jury, Wilson is letting it be known that he wants to keep politics out of the process. This is a smart move by the first-term attorney general who has already brought down one fellow Republican, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. As for Harrell, if he decides to defend himself before the grand jury, he can’t even bring his attorney to the hearings.
It’s a balls-out but ultimately pointless move for Harrell to ask Wilson to publicize his SLED report
When Harrell called on the attorney general to make his SLED file public, he added this: “This report contains the facts of this matter, facts that have been kept from the public and even kept from my attorneys and me.” The Speaker of the House obviously thinks he’s in the clear on the matter. However, the move amounts to little more than political theater since he knows the attorney general’s office says it can’t and won’t release the SLED report.
S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess is pleased
Landess says she thinks Wilson is taking the investigation seriously. “For now, I am optimistic that there won’t be a whitewash and that the public will be represented and get the justice and the explanation, hopefully, that we deserve,” she says. “And that’s what we were asking for: that this be pursued and that the system work equally across the board for all of these powerful politicians.”
If Harrell goes down, his colleagues will begin jockeying for the speakership
If Harrell was forced from office, the House speaker pro tem, Rep. Jay Lucas of Darlington, would not move into the post automatically. His fellow House members would have to hold an election. With Harrell out, there could be a real knife fight.