COLUMBIA -- Activists pushing S.C. lawmakers to strengthen state laws governing public officials met last month with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to ask what, for them, is a burning question: What is going on with the State Law Enforcement Division's investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell?
Wilson's spokesman Mark Powell said SLED has not completed its investigation of the Charleston Republican. When that investigation is completed, the agency will report its findings to Wilson.
The handful of activists who met with Wilson left that meeting with no details about the Harrell investigation but differing impressions about where it stands.
One says he expects the matter to be dropped, after staffers in the attorney general's office raised questions about the vagueness of state ethics law and whether it is enforceable. Another said she left the meeting with no sense of Wilson's intent, but she questions whether there is any appetite to take on a powerful state legislator.
Harrell has been the subject of a SLED investigation since February, following questions from media and good-government groups about whether the speaker broke state ethics laws by reimbursing himself for flying his personal plane on state business and using his legislative power to benefit one of his businesses and a relative.
Responding to questions raised in the months before the SLED investigation, Harrell, who has been House speaker since 2005, said he had acted within the law, dismissing some of the allegations as political vendettas. Asked for an interview for this article, Harrell spokesman Greg Foster said the speaker will have nothing further to say while the investigation is ongoing.
Wilson and a deputy attorney general who attended the November meeting with the ethics activists were unavailable for comment last week.
The SLED investigation continues as the General Assembly prepares to resume its debate next month of an ethics reform bill, backed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. That debate stalled as the session ended last spring.
While the Harrell investigation has lingered, Senate and House legislative ethics committees have launched and concluded other investigations into state legislators, including then-state Sen. Robert Ford.
Ford, a Charleston Democrat, resigned in May after the Senate Ethics Committee accused him of spending campaign money on personal expenses, including sex shop purchases. Ford remains the subject of an ongoing SLED investigation.
As they await the SLED reports on Harrell and Ford, watchdog groups say they are concerned about equity in the investigations of state officials.
John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, said if the state takes no action against powerful House Speaker Harrell, it will impact how the public reacts to any action against Ford, an African-American Democrat who had little power in the Senate.
"Are they going to whitewash him (Ford), too?" said Crangle, who attended the November meeting with Attorney General Wilson.
If SLED and the attorney general's office take action against Ford but not Harrell, Crangle said, "Politically, it could be pretty explosive."
SLED asked to investigate
Wilson's office asked SLED to investigate Harrell after Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, filed a complaint with the attorney general in February.
Landess' complaint outlined five allegations against Harrell "that seem to demonstrate a pattern of abuse of power that is extremely disturbing." The allegations involve possible violations of state ethics law, including Harrell's use of his campaign account and legislative position.
In September 2012, The (Charleston) Post and Courier reported Harrell had reimbursed himself about $300,000 from his campaign account since 2008 for expenses, including the cost of flying his private plane on state business. Shortly before that article was published, Harrell returned about $23,000 to his campaign account, saying he did not have records for some reimbursed expenses.
Additional reports questioned Harrell's process for determining how much to repay himself, which is not defined in state law. Harrell said he consulted with House Ethics Committee staff members. At the time, Harrell spokesman Foster told The Post and Courier that Harrell reimbursed himself less than the costs estimated from aircraft charter companies.
But critics question whether the speaker's flight expenses - often for trips between Charleston and Columbia - are necessary expenses related to his work as a legislator.
"The reason he's flying his airplane is not to save time," said Common Cause's Crangle, who also has written a letter outlining several complaints against Harrell to Attorney General Wilson and a SLED investigator. "You can drive in the same period of time. He's doing it because it's a pretext to shift the cost of his airplane onto his campaign account."
Landess also raised questions about Harrell's appointment of his brother to a state committee that screens judges and alleged Harrell abused his legislative power by trying to aid his pharmaceutical business, which was seeking approval from a state agency to sell repackaged prescription drugs.
In January, Landess showed news media a 2006 note to the S.C. Pharmacy Board, written on the letterhead of the House speaker's office and signed with Harrell's name, saying, "We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request."
At the time, Harrell told reporters he did not write the note on the stationary - he had asked a staff member to write it. As a business owner and part-time legislator, Harrell said he talks to state agencies about his businesses but does not seek any special treatment.
Harrell also chalked the allegations up to Landess being upset with him because he did not reappoint her to the State Lottery Commission after he became speaker.
Landess said Harrell was "avoiding a discussion of the problem."
'A gun ... to shoot an elephant'
Legislative ethics committees have launched investigations this year but not against Harrell.
The House Ethics Committee currently is investigating state Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg. Mitchell made numerous cash withdrawals from his campaign account, money he says he used to pay campaign expenses. But those withdrawals may have violated campaign laws.
The House ethics panel also recently found probable cause that another state representative, Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, may have broken the law when he authorized use of a state plane to fly a Washington, D.C., pundit to Columbia to testify on an Obamacare nullification bill that Chumley was sponsoring. The trip cost $6,390.
In a recent opinion piece on the Policy Council's news website, The Nerve, Landess said the difference between those cases -- and others -- and the allegations against Harrell comes down to power.
"What do former Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard (who resigned in 2012 and entered a guilty plea to ethics violations), former Senator Robert Ford and Representative Harold Mitchell have in common?" Landess wrote. "All are politicians who were investigated on ethics charges, and none of them had any real power."
The recent cases are a sign that the legislative ethics committees -- the bodies authorized to investigate and punish lawmakers - are paying attention to the ethics issue, Common Cause's Crangle said. But their targets illustrate the "difference between going squirrel hunting and going elephant hunting."
Faced with allegations against a powerful politician, "They may feel they don't have a big enough gun to shoot an elephant," he said.
Said Landess: "There are so many good examples of at least ignoring the ethics law by much more powerful politicians than the ones being held accountable."
Nothing 'one way or the other'
When SLED completes its investigation, it will send a report to the attorney general, who can decide whether to prosecute, investigate further or do nothing.
Crangle, Landess and others who attended the November meeting with Attorney General Wilson about the Harrell investigation left with different impressions.
Landess said there was no news from the meeting. "They were being cautious not to give us anything one way or the other."
But Crangle said he left with the sense the attorney general's office may not act regardless of SLED's findings.
"We pretty much got the brushoff, that (Wilson) wasn't going to do anything ... on the Bobby Harrell investigation," he said.
Crangle said he left with that impression because of a debate he had with staffers in the attorney general's office about whether parts of state ethics law may be too vague to be enforced.
Also at the meeting with Wilson were Talbert Black, a Lexington political activist who requested the meeting, and Dana Beach, executive director of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, which is fighting a Harrell-backed plan to extend Interstate 526 onto Johns Island.
Both Black and Beach said they hope the investigation, whatever comes of it, is made public.
The length of the investigation, thus far, is not a concern, Black said. "If it needs to take that long, I don't want to shortcut the investigation."
But Beach frets the lack of clarity about the status of the Harrell investigation will lead to more public distrust of government.
The public deserves a thorough investigation and assurance "the law was adequate to proceed against actions that were not right," he said.
Without that, Beach said, the results of the investigation could be a "catastrophic spiral down toward a lack of civic involvement and even more ceding of power to people that bother to run for office."