Allegations about S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s alleged illegal use of campaign funds were criminal in nature from the beginning and an ongoing investigation into his affairs should stay in the State Grand Jury, according to the people who sparked the Harrell investigation in the first place.
“Public corruption was what we always alleged,” said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, who filed a complaint with Attorney General Alan Wilson in February 2013 alleging potentially illegal activity involving Harrell.
Read Landess' letter at bottom of this story
The matter of whether the ongoing investigation of Harrell’s use of campaign finances will stay in the State Grand Jury or go to the House Ethics Committee will apparently be debated at an upcoming court hearing before Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning.
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Even before Manning’s hearing, for which no date has been officially set, that legal dispute has assumed a extrajudicial life of its own – in the court of public opinion. Earlier this week, one of Harrell’s lawyers, Gedney Howe, was quoted as telling reporters that Harrell’s finances should be examined by the House Ethics Committee – not the State Grand Jury.
The Ethics Committee is a relatively toothless body that hears civil ethics matters. A State Grand Jury’s findings, on the other hand, are potentially criminal in nature and can result in indictments that can force a person to stand trial and be subject to heavy fines or prison.
Landess’ statements Wednesday urging that the matter be kept in the State Grand Jury were a reply to Howe’s assertion that it is an Ethics Committee matter.
Manning has not announced an official date for a hearing on the matter, and the lack of information is feeding public conversation about the matter. In the past week, editorial writers for both The State and The (Charleston) Post and Courier, Harrell’s hometown paper, have urged that the State Grand Jury – and not the House Ethics Committee – is the proper vehicle to examine the allegations against Harrell.
Landess spoke at a Wednesday press event that attracted a half-dozen reporters. She was joined by Common Cause of South Carolina executive director John Crangle, with whom she made the original allegations against Harrell. The most serious asserts that Harrell converted some $300,000 of campaign funds to his personal use.
Landess made these points:
• The first sentence of her three-page Feb. 14, 2013, letter to Wilson says she is raising “what appears to be multiple, and possibly criminal, violations of state ethics laws.”
• An accompanying 12-page official complaint against Harrell by Landess, given to Wilson at the same time she gave Wilson the letter, also says that the apparent ethics violations “rise to the level of public corruption.”
• Before giving her allegations to Wilson, Landess said she had a discussion in early February 2013 with House Ethics Committee chairman Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In that discussion, she said she discussed in general terms the nature of her allegations and listened as Bingham described how his Ethics Committee might not be the proper forum for such matters.
Landess quoted Bingham as saying, “We are just not qualified to investigate something like that.”
Reached later Wednesday, Bingham confirmed the meeting and the contents of the discussion. But he stressed that he spoke in general terms, telling Landess what the Ethics Commission could or couldn’t do with various types of allegations. Landess did not share with him the exact nature of her allegations, and he made no recommendations to her, Bingham said.
“I said, ‘Look, we are a civil body. We handle civil complaints. We are not a criminal investigative arena.’ I said if it’s criminal ... or obviously public corruption, then that goes to the attorney general,” Bingham said.
He did tell her, he said, that if the House Ethics Committee uncovered a criminal violation while examining violations of state ethics laws, it would forward that matter to the attorney general’s office.
Shortly after meeting with Bingham, Landess met with Wilson and gave him her letter and official complaint against Harrell, she said. Wilson then directed SLED – a state investigative agency whose detectives look into alleged wrongdoing – to examine the matter.
On Jan. 13, Wilson announced that SLED had finished its investigation and he was turning it over to the State Grand Jury for further investigation. The State Grand Jury, assisted by investigators, can take an investigation to a higher level. It has subpoena power for documents and can compel testimony from witnesses.
The grand jury began its work in secret.
In March, The State newspaper disclosed that Harrell’s lawyers had secretly requested a hearing to ask Judge Robert Hood to disqualify Wilson and his office from prosecuting the case.
After the publicity, Judge Manning, not Hood, held a public hearing at which Harrell’s lawyers, Howe and Bart Daniel, produced a witness – a Harrell staffer – who told of a private conversation between him and Wilson during which Wilson had made a veiled threat against Harrell, implying he could suffer if he didn’t vote the way Wilson wanted him to on a bill.
Wilson, who also took the stand, confirmed that the meeting had taken place but insisted he had done nothing improper.
After that hearing, Howe told a reporter that he and Daniel would be raising a new issue to try to get Wilson disqualified – giving the matter to the House Ethics Committee.
Manning is apparently reviewing lawyers’ briefs, and observers are waiting for him to announce a date for a hearing.
Harrell’s lawyer Howe could not be reached for comment.
READ: S.C. Policy Council’s 2013 letter to Attorney General Alan Wilson.