The South Carolina House Ethics Committee has ordered the man who was once the chamber’s highest-ranking legislator to repay more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, committee members voted unanimously that former House Speaker Bobby Harrell had improperly used $113,500 in campaign funds to cover his legal fees after pleading guilty to six ethics-related charges last October. The money must be sent to the state’s General Fund used to craft the annual budget.
Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce told reporters the committee had issued a 2013 advisory opinion that legislators could not use campaign funds to pay attorney fees in cases where they were guilty of personal misconduct. Since Harrell pleaded guilty in a criminal court, Bingham said the precedent set in 2013 does not allow him to use money raised in the last election to pay the fine.
“There’s a lot things you can use them for,” Bingham said. “Even in the case of Speaker Harrell: if he had been found innocent, then clearly his attorneys’ fees were to represent and clear his good name. In this case, he was not. He pled guilty to personal misconduct.”
Harrell was forced to resign last year as a result of his guilty plea, but had a six-year prison sentence suspended in favor of three years’ probation and a $30,000 fine. As part of the guilty plea, Harrell was required to donate his remaining campaign funds to the state’s General Fund. He also agreed to act as witness in any future corruption cases involving the South Carolina Statehouse.
A representative from the state Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services said the committee’s finding has not been deemed a violation of Harrell’s parole, since it did not involve any court costs or fines incurred by the state.
The committee gave Harrell 30 days to come up with the money.
John Crangle of the government watchdog Common Cause organization said he thought the committee had made the right decision, and that attorneys fees should be treated as a personal expense if an individual has been convicted for violating the law. “It’s not an office-related expense and it’s not campaign-related,” he said.