An array of well-known political activists who typically represent different agendas stood together at the Statehouse to call for an ethics investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
Conservative and liberal groups ranging from the Tea Party to the Progressive Network say they are frustrated that questions into the Speaker’s campaign money spending are not being clearly answered and that there is no structure in place to get timely answers.
John Crangle of Common Cause was key in pushing for and crafting ethics reform after Operation Lost Trust, a bribery scandal that rocked the South Carolina Legislature 22 years ago.
Now, he is asking Speaker Harrell to avoid a scandal, by explaining why he reimbursed himself about $280,000 from campaign money. The expenditures are filed online with the State Ethics Commission, but the explanations are general and the law only requires that Harrell keep the receipts on file if questioned. But the only group that can request to see those are restricted from doing so within 50 days of an election.
The Speaker did allow Associated Press reporter Seanna Adcox to scour the receipts. After two and half hours, she reported that they seemed intact, but she was unable to make or take copies with her.
Crangle, at Tuesday’s press conference, called on the House Speaker to “come clean, be a man”
AUDIO: Crangle’s comments (:48)
Greg Foster of the Speakers Office responded to the press conference by saying “It is clear that these political attacks are not about ethics laws, truth or facts. These attacks are serious – and seriously misleading.” Foster says “It has been thoroughly demonstrated, and reported by media outlets statewide, that Speaker Harrell is in full compliance with all aspects of the Ethics Act. ”
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council, a longtime critic of the Speaker, disagrees, saying there have been no clear answers and continues to question his power in the House.
AUDIO: Landess says no one in power will challenge Harrell (:24)
Foster says the AP seeing the receipts fully demonstrates that Harrell was in compliance with he reimbursed himself for office-related travel and other expenses that could have been charged to taxpayers instead.
Harry Kibler of an Upstate Tea Party coalition, disagrees.
AUDIO: Kibler asks, “Since when does a reporter become the ethics enforcement agency?” (:16)
On the other end of the political spectrum, Brett Bursey of the South Carolina Progressive Network and Phil Noble of the New Democrats, says this is a symptom of a greater issue with how the state legislature operates.
AUDIO: Bursey challenges House Ethics Committee objectivity (:23)
Bursey is referring to campaign donations by a political action committee tied to Harrell, even those unopposed this election.
The governor-appointed State Ethics commission says it cannot investigate House members, so the group repeatedly called on the state Attorney General’s Office to look into their questions.
Attorney General Alan Wilson issued this:
“As the state’s chief prosecutor, this Office resolves matters in the public’s best interest. There is an established record of our following the legal process. It must be given the chance to proceed as designed by law. That is what we will do in this instance.
“South Carolina statute 8-13-540(3) authorizes the House Ethics committee to investigate this type of allegation concerning House members. That law says ‘[a]fter the hearing, the ethics committee shall determine its findings of fact (d) in the case of an alleged criminal violation, [it shall] refer the matter to the Attorney General for investigation.’
“For that reason it is premature for this Office to ask SLED 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.”
House Speaker Harrell declined to comment, but Greg Foster of his office says the Legislature will be taking up ethics reform this session and a comprehensive, bipartisan committee has already been formed in the House. That scrutiny will include, says Foster, the balance and structure of all ethics oversight committee. He says there are a lot of “gray areas in the law.”
“Everything will be looked at,” said Foster.
In the meantime, Foster says, these are the same groups that have been repeatedly been going after the Speaker on various topics.
This year, these various groups have challenged Harrell’s influence in the I-526 expansion efforts in Charleston and campaign giving through the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC.
Though the same groups called on Gov. Nikki Haley to take action, the governor has declined to “create a media frenzy by piling on” Harrell.
When the governor accused Harrell of unfairly influencing a recent House Ethics Committee investigation of her (she was cleared), he answered:
“Given the governor’s claim that there is no validity to these charges, combined with the extreme measures and false accusations now being employed by Gov. Haley, one can only wonder why” Harrell said. “Why to this level? What does Gov. Haley have to hide?”