November 26, 2014

SLED report: Harrell paid self for flights to amusement park, baseball tournament

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last month

Bobby Harrell embraces his wife a few minutes after pleading guilty to six ethics counts last month

State police have now released their investigative report into former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, nearly one year after its completion led to charges against one of the most powerful men in the Statehouse.

The final eight pages of the report are blacked out, which a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) spokesman said followed state laws allowing law enforcement to withhold information that could eventually be “used in a prospective law enforcement action.”

Previously, First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe — whose office prosecuted Harrell this year — would not say if the investigation had been expanded into other lawmakers or Statehouse personnel. However, part of the ex-Speaker’s plea deal would require him to act as an informant or witness in further proceedings.

SLED began investigating Harrell’s finances in 2013 after the State Attorney General’s Office forwarded a complaint from Ashley Landess, the president of the libertarian thinktank South Carolina Policy Council. SLED finished its report in late 2013. Attorney General Alan Wilson then turned it over as evidence for the State Grand Jury in January of this year. That sparked a protracted court battle between Harrell and the Attorney General that eventually led Wilson to recuse himself in favor of Pascoe.

In September, a second grand jury eventually returned ten indictments against the Speaker. Harrell pleaded guilty to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses last month and was sentenced to six years in prison, suspended in favor of three years probation with a $30,000 fine. He also resigned his seat in the House.

The SLED report focused largely on discrepancies with how Harrell reported his campaign expenses, versus what his financial records actually showed. Investigators also revealed dozens of interviews conducted with Harrell and his staff that were not revealed in court.

More details were also given about flights that Harrell took in his private plane and charged to his campaign account. Most of the flights appeared to be for legitimate reasons, but SLED agents noted issues in how the Speaker (who also acted as pilot) calculated his own reimbursement rate.

During one of those trips, investigators said Harrell flew his plane to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a 2009 high school baseball tournament. He charged his campaign account $3,800 for the flight, citing only “legislative travel.” When investigators asked how the trip served state business, the report said Harrell called it a “see and be seen trip” with constituents. The report also reveals a previously unreported flight to the June 2010 opening of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios amusement park in Orlando, Florida. The Wizarding World opening coincided with the dates of the 2010 National Speakers Conference that Harrell reported attending in Annapolis, MD at the same time.

When he was asked about the Orlando trip, Harrell provided a copy of an invitation to the event as his itinerary. The invitation did not indicate a name. Harrell also told investigators that he went on the trip to meet “with film company executives in regard to film legislation that was under consideration” at the time. The report said the Speaker did not provide any documentation indicating who the film company executives were or where and when the meeting took place.

On his documents, Harrell also listed trips to legislative conferences or committee meetings in Sea Island, GA; Key Biscayne, FL; Washington, DC; Kiawah Island, SC; Charleston; San Francisco, CA; Anchorage, Alaska; and Dublin, Ireland from 2009 to 2012.

Harrell’s spokesman at the time Greg Foster said Harrell was allowed by state law to use campaign funds to pay for travel as an ordinary expense of his office. This allowed the Speaker to use campaign funds instead of state funds for travel expenses. Foster further said that Harrell was trying to be elected as either president or chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference at the time. Foster argued Harrell would have tried hosting conferences in Charleston to benefit the local economy if he had been elected.

The report also noted more than $22,000 paid to E Systems Solutions, a company that set up wireless access for Harrell’s offices. But the report also noted E Systems was paid to set up his wife’s computer, repair computers inside the home, and connect a Nintendo Wii to the wireless network.

The report also examined nearly $23,000 in discrepancies that Harrell repaid his campaign fund in 2012 (after a critical Charleston Post & Courier report). The report noted the Speaker cut himself a check on at least nine occasions using campaign funds, but the expenditure reports he provided would be up to a thousand dollars lower than the checks he wrote. Neither the checks nor the E Systems payments were part of the final indictments against Harrell.

Advocates say DSS should focus more on child’s best interests

Randy Harling, president of the Connie Maxwell Children's Home in Greenwood, speaks to senators on Monday (Image: SCETV)

Randy Harling, president of the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, speaks to senators on Monday (Image: SCETV)

Some child advocates say South Carolina’s child services agency needs to do a better job of placing children in foster care and deemphasizing its top priority focus on keeping families together.

During a state Senate hearing Monday, senators heard from complaints from several nonprofits and guardian ad litems over how the Department of Social Services handles child placement and foster homes.

“I’m asking you, please… this thing about reunification is not always a hundred percent,” Larry Mitchell, an Aiken guardian ad litem, told the committee. “Let’s go with the theme, ‘whatever is best for the kid.'” Guardian ad litems are court-appointed positions tasked with representing a child’s interests in custody legal fights.

The Rev. Randy Harling, who is president of Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in Greenwood, said the state needs to better analyze children in its care to determine which are best suited for adoption, which should be placed in single-family foster homes, and which could have an easier time in group homes. Mitchell and Harling also agreed that DSS caseworkers frequently don’t communicate with foster families and treat them as “warehouses,” while custody cases are decided.

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SC House moves towards ending its exemption from open records law

State Rep. Bill Taylor has made passing the changes a priority for several years (Image: SCETV)

State Rep. Bill Taylor has made revamping FOIA law a priority for several years (Image: SCETV)

Legislators could soon be required to turn over any emails or letters they send involving state business — ending an exemption to South Carolina’s open records law that they’ve enjoyed for decades.

A House Ethics and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) study panel voted 19-1 Monday in favor of a proposal that would end legislators’ exemptions from open records laws. The vote was largely symbolic — the actual legislation would need to be introduced when the full General Assembly returns in January, but it signaled what House leaders will try to pass in 2015.

For four years, a bipartisan coalition of House members have tried to revamp the state’s FOIA laws to crack down on agencies that abuse or ignore the law by keeping documents secret with little consequence. The effort has been led by State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, a former journalist who said some agencies– especially small, local governments– purposely charge exorbitant fees to intimidate a person out of making the request.

“We’ve had so many subcommittee meetings over the years where we’ve heard the outrageous things that have happened with this,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “Charging $10,000 to a citizen to get some information they want? C’mon. And copying charges at $10 a page? All of that is just ludicrous.”

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Former Charleston County legislator indicted on eight charges

Former State Sen. Robert Ford before his resignation in May 2013 (File)

Former State Sen. Robert Ford before his resignation in May 2013 (File)

A Richland County grand jury has returned eight indictments against a longtime Charleston County state senator who stepped down last year.

Former State Sen. Robert Ford is accused of misusing thousands of dollars in campaign funds, then altering records when Senate staffers began investigating him, according to the indictments released by the State Attorney General’s Office on Friday.

Although Ford lives in North Charleston, the case was handled in South Carolina’s capital city due to campaign disclosure forms he filed with the State Ethics Commission.

The former Democratic senator is charged with Misconduct in Office, two counts of Use of Campaign Funds for Personal Expenses, two counts of Depositing Campaign Contributions into Personal Bank Accounts, two counts of False Reporting, and Forgery. He could face a maximum of 19 years in prison and $20,000 fine, plus possible reimbursement of the missing funds.

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Haley names ex-Navy attorney and Ethics Commission chair as new chief of staff

James Burns (Image: Nelson Mullins)

James Burns (Image: Nelson Mullins)

Gov. Nikki Haley has named a former Navy attorney and current South Carolina Ethics Commission chairman as her new chief of staff, according to an announcement from her office Thursday.

James Burns will replace Ted Pitts, who has taken a job with the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. Burns is currently an attorney with the prominent Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough law firm out of Columbia. Prior to that, he served as a deputy counsel in the Pentagon’s Vice Chief of Naval Operations office and a military attorney. He is a graduate of The Citadel military college in Charleston.

Burns also spent the past nine months as chairman of the state Ethics Commission after his February appointment by Haley. He received some brief attention this summer after announcing new guidelines for dealing with media interviews that reduced the number of staffers who could talk to reporters. While news organizations questioned the move as a political decision, Burns maintained it was about protecting the integrity of investigations since the agency’s attorneys would be involved in potential prosecutions for ethics violations.

The governor is currently in India, but released a statement Thursday calling Burns “a great addition.” “His integrity and outstanding reputation as a leader, combined with his understanding of both our policy and legislative goals, is exactly what we need to start this second term the same way we ended the first – fighting to make South Carolina a better place to live,” she stated. “The last four years have been great ones for our state, but we still have a lot to accomplish and I know that James is the best person to help us get the job done.”

Pitts has worked with Haley’s administration during her entire first term in office. He served first as a legislative liaison before being promoted to chief of staff last year. Prior to that, he served with Haley as a fellow Lexington County legislator in the South Carolina House. He is also a major in the South Carolina Army National Guard.