House Speaker Bobby Harrell maintains innocence in wake of indictment

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - House Speaker Bobby Harrell has been indicted by the First Circuit Solicitor's Office on charges of misconduct and using campaign funds.

In a release sent out by Solicitor David Pascoe, the Richland County Grand Jury hit Harrell with a nine-count indictment: two counts of misconduct in office, six counts of using campaign funds for personal use, and one count of false reporting candidate campaign disclosures.

"This indictment confirms what we've said from the beginning," said Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council. "We are dealing with a case of public corruption. Why Bobby Harrell was not charged with public corruption is one of the questions we still have."

Landess said she has been pushing for this indictment.

"The reason that we started this, the reason that we pushed the system as hard as we did, was to expose how dangerous it is, but most importantly, to hold the most powerful politician in the state accountable," Landess said. "Nowhere else in the country would a public official still be in office under those circumstances."

As far as what's in the indictment, it says Harrell on multiple occasions paid himself out of his campaign account for non-existent round trip flights from Charleston to Columbia. It says he also traveled in his private airplane to a baseball tournament in Florida using funds from his campaign account. On top of other allegations, the indictment also says he hid the unlawful payment schemes in a variety of ways.

A bond hearing has not yet been set for Harrell. Pascoe says he will be allowed to formally accept service of the true billed indictments and attend his bond hearing on the same date.

"At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations," Pascoe said in a statement. "Mr. Harrell is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

The indictment is just the latest chapter in the ongoing investigation against Harrell. The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by the South Carolina Policy Council.

The group accused Harrell of using his political influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business, nepotism by appointing his brother to a committee that screens judicial candidates, and using campaign funds to pay for travel expenses.

Late in August, Attorney General Alan Wilson, who had been investigating the allegations along with the State Grand Jury, removed himself from the case and appointed Pascoe to take over.

In the meantime, House lawmakers are beginning to wrap their heads around the indictment.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas says he hasn't spoken with Harrell yet, but he believes the speaker will "do the right thing" and step down.

Lucas says the statute is apparently clear that the indictment will trigger an automatic suspension. He's not sure if any of the charges are felonies. However, he says the Common Law Misconduct in Office count would carry a possible 10 years in prison.

If Harrell is suspended or steps down, Lucas will then become the acting Speaker of the House until another is selected.

Harrell has maintained his innocence through the allegations and released a statement late Wednesday to reiterate that stance.

"I have said all along that I have never intentionally violated any law, and I still strongly believe that statement to be accurate," said Harrell.

"In no way have I ever benefited personally or financially from travel reimbursements from my campaign account. In fact, I have regularly used the privately raised funds from my campaign account to pay for official state travel instead of passing that cost along to taxpayers. Similarly, I have often used my own airplane, at no cost to the taxpayers, for official state travel when it would have been completely justifiable to have used the taxpayer-funded state plane instead. If over the course of four years, I mistakenly wrote down the wrong date on a handful of items, that is something that can easily be addressed."

Harrell also says a previous attorney general's opinion 1967 declares "misconduct in office" to be a misdemeanor offense.

Because all charges are misdemeanors, it appears Harrell can keep the seat he's held for 22 years. A felony indictment would've required that he, as the chamber's top officer, immediately suspend himself. Uncertain is whether the charges could be considered crimes of "moral turpitude." That's another class of charges requiring suspension of any official duties pending the outcome.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, suggested Harrell step aside from his leadership post and let Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas make those decisions. Lucas, R-Hartsville, did not immediately return messages.

Others calling for Harrell to resign his powerful speaker's post while the case plays out include Republican Gov. Nikki Haley; her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen; and state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison.

The House is scheduled to return to Columbia for an organizational session after the November election. That special session includes electing the speaker. Normally a formality, Harrell's re-election to one of the state's post powerful jobs is now far from certain.

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