Harrell on defensive after media scrutiny of campaign funds - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

Harrell on defensive after media scrutiny of campaign funds


South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell has become the latest statewide political leader to be targeted for possible ethics violations.

Harrell is on the defensive after the Charleston Post and Courier examined his use of campaign money to pay for dozens of trips in the plane he owns and pilots.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford ran into ethics trouble on the issue of air travel. Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard also had ethics problems in his use of campaign funds. This is beginning to sound familiar.

We have yet to hear any substantial explanation from Harrell that would help us understand how he calculated and justified this spending.

And it's all got to do with a private airplane.

The Cirrus S-R 22 is a four seater, single engine plane that can cost upwards of a half million dollars. Harrell owns one. He is a private pilot who often flies out of North Charleston and over the last four years, many of his trips have taken him to and from Columbia.

Harrell, as one of the state's most powerful elected leaders has paid for many if not all of those trips by reimbursing himself with nearly a quarter million dollars in funds raised by his campaign.

But the Post and Courier reports Harrell has failed to provide receipts and records for those expenses and others adding up to more than $325,000. The records are required by state ethics rules.

"If he had a good reason for spending that amount of money and he had documentation, why didn't he make it available," said John Crangle with Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

Common Cause has problems with Harrell's actions on several levels. One question they have is why did Harrell reimburse himself instead of arranging direct payment of vendors?

"In a case where you have such large amounts of expenditures, the billing needs to come directly from the vendor to the campaign account and the campaign account needs to pay it directly. Paying it indirectly opens the possibility of abuse," said Crangle.

Crangle says campaign donations should be used to run for office -- period.

"I've known legislators to buy tires for their cars. I've known women legislators to buy dresses. It's possible to use the money for almost any purpose and say somehow it's related to your public office," said Crangle.

Harrell's office is in Columbia's Blatt Building. We went there on Tuesday and left numerous messages with staff, but we were unable to contact the Speaker.

We do know Harrell was in Columbia and was meeting with a reporter for the Associated Press for much of the afternoon. We waited near the Speaker's office for about two hours. We were later told by a spokesman that shortly after that meeting, Harrell was on the way out of town. He was driving, not flying.

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