House speaker accused of using influence to help his company

The (Columbia) StateJanuary 22, 2013 

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has abused his legislative power by trying to aid his pharmaceutical business, the head of a Columbia limited-government think tank said Tuesday.

S.C. Policy Council president Ashley Landess said ethics reform efforts must remove conflicts of interest.

"We're not headed for a place where one politician with extraordinary power can set himself above the law -- we're there," Landess said.

Harrell, a Charleston Republican who has been speaker since 2005, denied any wrongdoing and accused Landess of seeking revenge for his decision not to reappoint her to the state Lottery Commission. Landess denied the accusation.

Landess provided reporters with copies of emails in 2006 by then-S.C. Board of Pharmacy member Bobby Bradham, who wrote to agency officials about his concerns over Harrell seeking permission for his business to sell repackaged prescription drugs.

"They (Harrell and a business partner) are not happy that they have invested all this (sic) energies, time and monies," Bradham wrote. Efforts to reach Bradham on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Subsequently, Harrell received clearance from federal and state authorities for his business to sell medicine to doctors, according to the emails.

Landess also provided a copy of a handwritten note on the speaker's office stationery that was sent to the Pharmacy Board with the state application.

"We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request," said the note.

The emails "suggest the (state's) most powerful politician used his office to benefit his personal company," Landess said, adding she does not think Harrell is alone in improperly using his elected office.

Harrell said Tuesday that he was not trying to influence the Pharmacy Board.

"I said clearly to them that I didn't want to be treated any differently than anybody else," he said. "I'm a small-business owner and a part-time legislator and, like any small-business owner, I talk to the agencies that are involved where the business is concerned."

Harrell said he did not recall getting upset over questions about his business, Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals. The company sells non-narcotic drugs that it repackages into smaller packages for dispensing at doctor's offices.

Harrell's involvement with Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals has been questioned before.

In 2008, The State published a lengthy article saying Harrell had asked the state Department of Health and Human Services to approve allowing a Medicaid managed-care company to use repackaged pharmaceuticals. That company contracted with doctors, some of whom purchased drugs from Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals. State officials wrote each other emails saying "Speaker Harrell" was "asking for expedited approval."

Harrell denied any wrongdoing, saying he was advocating for the managed-care company because it was a constituent. He added that, "From time to time, like any other business owner, I need to talk to state government about what we're doing" at Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals.

Published reports last year also questioned whether Harrell should have reimbursed himself $280,000 from his campaign account since 2008 for, among other things, using his personal plane. Harrell subsequently returned about $23,000 to his campaign.

Landess said the Policy Council is considering filing a ethics complaint against Harrell with the House Ethics Committee.

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