After pleading guilty Thursday to six counts of violating the state’s ethics laws, now-former House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he wanted to end a “two-year nightmare.” But those with ties to the investigation say there could still be much more to come.
A plea agreement signed by the Charleston Republican includes language stating that, “The Defendant (Harrell) agrees to be fully truthful and forthright with the attorneys and investigators for the Solicitor and the Government in thorough and complete debriefings of the Defendant’s knowledge concerning unlawful activities should the Solicitor or Government seek his cooperation.” The agreement notes that cooperation includes turning over necessary records and testifying at any future trials or proceedings if called upon to do so.
If Harrell fails to meet the terms of the agreement, prosecutors could return to court with four more indictments they agreed not to prosecute on Thursday.
1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe would not say if there are other ongoing investigations, telling reporters after Thursday’s hearing he could not comment if there were.
But at least one of the government watchdogs who filed the original ethics complaint against Harrell said he believes the relatively quick guilty plea (Harrell was indicted last month) and lack of jail time means the former Speaker is turning informant against other alleged corruption cases in the Statehouse.
“This is just the beginning because there will be a bunch of other people that could be criminally charged,” Common Cause South Carolina executive director John Crangle told reporters after the meeting. “This whole plea agreement is designed to get his cooperation so that other people will be prosecuted.”
There have been rumors for weeks that FBI and state investigators were looking into the actions of other lawmakers in the House of Representatives, particularly those who received money from a political action committee with ties to the former Speaker. However, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles and state Attorney General Alan Wilson have repeatedly declined to say if there is an active investigation or not.
Wilson said in a statement Thursday that he was not involved in the plea deal negotiations. He did add that it is “routine policy” in the AG’s Office to trust the judgment of solicitors they designate to handle cases. The Attorney General did praise the guilty verdict, however. “In the public interest, this matter has confirmed that no one in South Carolina is above the law,” he wrote.
South Carolina House leaders say they are hoping to move on from the case and focus on next session. “This is a disappointing day for South Carolina and the South Carolina House of Representatives,” acting Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a statement. “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.”
But Crangle said other members of the House leadership were aware of Harrell’s misdeeds and did not try to stop them for fear of retaliation by the powerful Speaker.
“I think there’s a sigh of relief in the House,” he said. “Because a lot of those people were intimidated by Harrell. They knew he was abusing his power, but were afraid to say anything. Now that he’s gone, I think there’s a real feeling of relief.”