COLUMBIA — Groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum gathered at the Statehouse on Tuesday to implore the state’s top prosecutor to investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s campaign spending.
Representatives from groups including the South Carolina Progressive Network and the SC Policy Council, a libertarian think tank, said Tuesday that Attorney General Alan Wilson should use the State Grand Jury to investigate the powerful Charleston Republican’s reimbursements from his campaign account.
“This speaker has so much power that no one, no one seems willing to speak out,” said the Policy Council’s Ashley Landess. “He should not be above the law.”
Last month, Harrell’s spending came under fire after The Post and Courier of Charleston reported he had been vague in reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements. Harrell said he did nothing improper, showing The Associated Press documents to back up his assertions but not allowing copies to be made.
Most of the largest reimbursements involved flights on Harrell’s personal single-engine plane to Columbia and to legislative events across the state. For those, he showed the AP spreadsheets, like one detailing a $17,325 withdrawal in May 2011 for 30 trips flown over seven months.
Harrell is not required under state law to be more specific on the forms – but he did acknowledge that he could have been – when filling out campaign finance forms. As speaker since 2005, Harrell has reimbursed himself about $280,000 from his campaign account since the summer of 2008, according to quarterly spending reports filed with the state.
State law bars the House Ethics Committee from publicly discussing a complaint unless probable cause of a violation is found. John Crangle of Common Cause has asked the committee to waive its jurisdiction and let state authorities investigate Harrell and on Tuesday renewed his request for Wilson’s attention.
In a statement Tuesday, Wilson reiterated his position that it was premature to ask him to investigate before the House panel considers the matter.
Harrell spokesman dismissed the groups’ request as misleading and politically based.
“These political groups are attacking the Speaker for using privately raised campaign funds to pay for many expenses that could have been charged to taxpayers,” Greg Foster said in a statement. “It is clear that these political attacks are not about ethics laws, truth or facts. These attacks are serious – and seriously misleading.”
South Carolina’s legislative session doesn’t official convene until January, but it’s a sure bet that ethics reform will be a much-debated issue. Last week, state House and Democratic leaders formed special committees to craft their own changes to state ethics law.
Earlier this year, Wilson joined Gov. Nikki Haley – both are Republicans – on a state fly-around to promote her own reform package, which would abolish the legislative panels charged with investigating state House and Senate members.
That launch came two months after the House Ethics Committee examined – and ultimately cleared Haley of – allegations that she illegally lobbied while a House member.
Landess’ group has also been touting its own government reform package. In August, the Policy Council joined tea party activists and environmentalists to promote a plan that would include requiring elected officials to disclose their sources of income on ethics forms.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP