Harrell should welcome independent inquiry

Questions about state House Speaker Bobby Harrell's campaign fund spending won't go away until an independent, thorough investigation is conducted.

Harrell can protest and complain about the "liberal media" and political foes until he's blue in the face, but it won't restore public confidence in the speaker or in the process. If the documentation for his spending is there, as he says it is, then he shouldn't be troubled by an inquiry.

The (Charleston) Post and Courier last month reported that Harrell had reimbursed himself about $300,000 from his campaign account since 2008. Many of the reimbursements were for travel, including flights Harrell made in his own aircraft. The expenditures were not itemized on his campaign finance reports, and he did not respond to the newspaper's repeated requests to see documents backing up the spending.

After the story was published, Harrell showed an Associated Press reporter information on his air travel, credit card bills, hotel invoices, cellphone bills and pay stubs, but he wouldn't let the reporter copy anything. He paid back into his campaign fund $22,955, saying he had lost the receipts in an office move.

Quite frankly, it's puzzling why Harrell should be the one to determine what happens with these receipts. If the law requires them to be kept, they should be available for inspection.

But it's not just the media asking questions. A varied group that includes Common Cause and the S.C. Policy Council has asked state Attorney General Alan Wilson to investigate.

Wilson's response: "... It is premature for this office to ask (the State Law Enforcement Division) to investigate this matter at this time. The process must proceed as prescribed by state law. Should the House Ethics Committee not act, this office is then prepared to do what is in the public's best interest."

We hope Wilson changes his mind, or finds another route for an independent inquiry. Lawmakers investigating their own is a big problem. Who has faith that the House Ethics Committee will scrutinize Harrell's spending the way it needs to be? Some committee members are beholden to him for campaign contributions, and all are beholden to him for committee assignments that affect their political careers.

And under the law, the committee can't take up a complaint within 50 days of an election. How convenient.

The evidence continues to mount that our state ethics laws are woefully weak. Officials' claiming their actions are legal does little to address the public's concerns.

State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort has been appointed to a five-member Senate "Select Committee on Ethics Reform," which will draft an ethics reform bill. Davis says he'll push to end lawmakers' policing themselves; require all elected officials to report their income sources; and strengthen the state's open record laws by making lawmakers subject to the Freedom of Information Act and prohibiting excessive charges to fulfill document requests.

We wish Davis well in his work and hope to see substantive changes made to the law in the next session.

But Harrell doesn't have to wait until the law changes to do the right thing.