October 6, 2015

Former SC House Speaker ordered to repay $113,000 for improper payments

Bobby Harrell during his time as House Speaker (File)

Bobby Harrell during his time as House Speaker (File)

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.


Legislators warn DHEC not to grant permit for Lexington sewage treatment facility

In this image tweeted by the SC House GOP, State Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, is joined by other opponents near the Saluda River (@SCHouseGOP)

In this image tweeted by the SC House GOP, State Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, is joined by other opponents near the Saluda River (@SCHouseGOP)

Midlands legislators are urging South Carolina’s environmental agency not to grant a critical permit for a Lexington sewage treatment facility that discharges into a river just upstream from Columbia’s riverfront.

A bipartisan group of Richland and Lexington County lawmakers held a press conference Monday against Carolina Water Services’ discharge permit. The company is seeking approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to continue treated wastewater discharges into the Saluda River, but conservation groups (most notably the Congaree Riverkeeper organization) have organized public opposition to the permit, citing dozens of violations for Carolinas and its parent company Utilities, Inc., the last 20 years.

On Monday, the group of lawmakers noted DHEC had initially ordered the small facility to connect with a regional wastewater network. But negotiations between the company and the town of Lexington have not reached an agreement. CWS’s permit expired years ago, but regulators have allowed it to continue operating while they deal with a large backlog at the agency.

“What you see is both sides of the aisle, both sides of this river, coming together to speak with one voice: to say no,” State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said.

[Read more…]

Senate Democrats want SC budget surplus to go towards roads

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington

Democrats in the South Carolina Senate want an $87 million budget surplus to be directed towards infrastructure.

State legislators had already planned on having higher-than-expected tax revenues this past fiscal year that ended June 30. In the final budget signed by Gov. Nikki Haley last month, lawmakers set aside roughly half of the projected $400 million in surplus money (totaling $216 million) to go towards county transportation funds. The Board of Economic Advisors revealed last week that the state had received the additional $87 million on top of that.

State Senator Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said the current surplus of $87 million would not be much, but would provide some benefit. “It’s a $1.4 billion annual problem and so this will only be a drop in the bucket, but at least it helps,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.

He said the roads in South Carolina are a major concern. “Rebuilding roads, repaving roads is the number one issue in this state. It’s what people want addressed. It affects every aspect of our life from our jobs to our transportation system.” Setzler is among the Senate Democrats who favor a proposal that increases the state’s gas tax and would raise various vehicle and license fees to raise additional money for roads.

Governor Nikki Haley outlined a proposal during her State of the State address that would gradually raise the gas tax by 10 cents up to 26 cents per gallon by 2019. But that would be offset by a 2 percent decrease in South Carolina’s income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent. House members passed their own bill in April that would raise more than $300 million for roads, offer an incentive for counties to take over some roads from the state and included some income tax relief.

But both plans remain stuck in the Senate. Republicans effectively allowed a filibuster among more conservative members to stall out debate on the Senate until the regular session ended in June. Those conservatives say they will not support a gas tax increase without structural reforms at the state Department of Transportation.

Setzler said investing in infrastructure will make South Carolina more attractive to families and businesses looking for a place to call home. “Everything that we do is impacted by the roads we travel on. Our economic development is tremendously impacted by that.” Setzler said.





Governor promotes her top legal advisor to be next chief of staff

Swati Patel (Image: SC Governor's Office)

Swati Patel (Image: SC Governor’s Office)

Gov. Nikki Haley has appointed a longtime top legal advisor to be her new chief of staff.

Swati Patel has acted as the governor’s chief general counsel for Haley’s entire administration. Her predecessor James Burns plans to return to his old employer Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough after just 10 months on the job. The Governor’s Office did not give any further reason for his departure.

Patel, 44, has been a fixture in the Statehouse over the past decade. Prior to joining Haley’s incoming team, she previously worked as a legal counsel for Gov. Mark Sanford and was an attorney on the House Judiciary Committee and House Ethics Committee. She is originally from Anderson.

“I can’t think of anyone who is more widely respected or uniquely qualified to lead our team than Swati Patel,” Haley said in a statement. “Swati’s steady leadership as legal counsel has strengthened our staff, guided our administration, and helped us deliver results to the people of South Carolina – and, as Chief of Staff, Swati will keep that momentum going.”

Former Department of Labor, License, and Regulation (LLR) director Holly Pisarik will replace Patel as Chief Legal Counsel. Pisarik has spent the past eight months as a special assistant to new Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford.

Senator Kimpson to pre-file gun bills

A state senator is proposing tougher state gun controls in the aftermath of the shootings at a Charleston church that killed nine people June 17th.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston County, told South Carolina Radio Network that he plans to pre-file bills banning assault weapons, strengthening background checks and creating a gun registration system. “There is a direct correlation between weak gun laws and gun violence,” Kimpson said.

Kimpson said the state must take action before there’s another tragedy. “What I am seeking to do is start the conversation, the real conservation in the general assembly,” said Kimpson Monday.

One of his proposals is a state background check that would insure state information not available on federal background checks is not overlooked or missed. Kimpson also wants gun owners to register their guns with the State Law Enforcement Division so there is an accurate gun tracking system.

Kimpson also wants gun owners to register their weapons with the State Law Enforcement Division so there is an accurate tracking system.