Former Speaker of the South Carolina House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty Thursday to six counts of use of campaign funds for personal expenses and has resigned from his seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
In a plea hearing at the Richland County courthouse, Harrell was sentenced to six years in prison, suspended in favor of three years of probation with a $30,000 fine. The 58-year-old Republican agreed to the following conditions in a written plea agreement:
- Harrell agreed not to seek or hold public office for the three years he is on probation. The Charleston Republican was first elected to the House in 1993 and elected Speaker in 2005.
- Harrell will pay a $30,000 fine plus an additional $93,958 to the general fund of South Carolina. Harrell will also turn over all of his remaining campaign account to the state’s general fund. That amount was not immediately available.
The 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office on Thursday also revealed a new, tenth indictment handed down against Harrell (one of the six counts included in the plea). The plea deal does not affect the three previous misconduct and false reporting charges related to the case. Prosecutors agreed not to prosecute these four counts in exchange for Harrell paying the nearly $124,000 required in the plea deal and cooperating in future investigations.
The plea agreement requires Harrell to cooperate with state and federal prosecutors, including to possibility of testifying “fully and truthfully at any trials or other proceeding” in state or federal court. He must also submit to polygraph examinations.
During the Thursday hearing, Harrell repeatedly answered “yes,” to questions by Judge Casey Manning asking if the charges against him were true. But afterwards he released a statement saying he still did not believe he had done anything wrong.
“I have agreed to this today to end what has been a two year nightmare,” he said in an email released by the South Carolina House GOP. “This has been incredibly hard on my family and me, and it is time for it to end. We have a fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account to fly a private aircraft to conduct state and campaign business, but to continue to fight this would have taken at least another year, possibly two.”
He thanked those who had offered “words of encouragement and prayers” for his wife and himself and said he would try to find other ways to serve the Lowcountry and South Carolina.
Prosecutors said the six charges to which Harrell pleaded guilty all dealt with use of a private plane. Harrell is a registered pilot and would often reimburse himself with campaign funds after reporting flights he had made to Columbia from his home in Charleston. A State Law Enforcement Division investigation found the Speaker had reimbursed himself $650 per hour for each flight, which Pascoe said was enough to help pay for the plane.
“The majority of the flights were for actual legislative and campaign purposes,” 1st Solicitor David Pascoe told the court Thursday. “But the defendant still derived an improper personal benefit for it.” However, SLED investigators flagged a handful of 2009 flights they considered suspicious. One of those was a January 8 flight that year to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While Harrell reported the trip as “legislative travel” on his campaign expense report. But Pascoe said Harrell actually flew with family and friends to attend a high school baseball tournament.
Pascoe said SLED investigators also identified four round trip flights Harrell reported from Charleston to Columbia that he called “non-existent.” However, prosecutors allowed Harrell’s legal team to add a “caveat” during his guilty plea that maintained the flights did occur, but he would plead guilty to improperly reimbursing himself.
The solicitor insisted investigators had evidence to show Harrell did not fly to Columbia on those days, “The State can prove the trip did not happen, but if he agrees that he’s guilty of this charge and that he received an excessive benefit, then I’m fine with that,” he told Judge Manning.
Pascoe continued that investigators were able to obtain flight records and pilot logs which showed the Speaker used the plane for much less time than he reported on his campaign forms. Prosecutors said cell phone records on the dates in question show Harrell’s phone signal moving between Columbia and Charleston in a manner consistent with driving rather than flying.
The First Circuit Solicitor took over the case’s prosecution following a months-long legal fight this spring. Harrell’s attorneys sought to remove state Attorney General Alan Wilson from the grand jury process, saying he had a conflict of interest. Wilson eventually agreed to remove himself from the grand jury process. The Attorney General’s Office had been gathering evidence for a possible indictment after the State Law Enforcement Division completed a report into Harrell’s activities last year. Wilson had asked SLED to investigate after receiving an initial ethics complaint from South Carolina Policy Council president Ashley Landess.
That SLED report is still yet to be released.
Harrell’s resignation means current acting Speaker Jay Lucas will now take over the position on a permanent basis. “This is a disappointing day for South Carolina and the South Carolina House of Representatives,” he said in a brief statement after Harrell’s conviction. “Days like this test the faith of the citizens of this State in their public officials. It is my hope that bringing this matter involving Speaker Harrell to a close will allow the House to move forward and to focus on the issues important to South Carolina.”
Lucas is the only lawmaker who has said he will run for House Speaker once legislators return to the Statehouse after Election Day.