SC House Speaker dodging WIS open records requests
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Despite state law that says such records are to be kept for four years and two public records requests, one of which delivered directly to the Speaker himself, Bobby Harrell refuses to allow WIS to see his spending records for the previous four years.
The Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives is under investigation after a conservative policy group requested the state's Attorney General's office look into how Harrell spent more than $325,000 from his campaign account.
State ethics filings show Harrell spent the money as reimbursements to himself from his "Harrell for House" campaign account between 2008 and the end of 2012. What Harrell has not done is to show WIS his spending records, and exactly what he did to earn the cash.
On January 8—the first day of session—we hand-delivered the same to request to Harrell as he left the House chambers. Harrell took the request, but never allowed us to inspect his spending records and never turned them over.
A WIS investigation found that Harrell reimbursed himself $247,000 for the use of his private airplane that he said was related to his official duties as a House member. Records show, Harrell flew 110 flights from his home in Charleston to Columbia to attend Legislative sessions and meetings Harrell said were connected to his job as a lawmaker. Harrell has not provided those records to WIS.
On October 9, 2012, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Harrell's campaign staff to "inspect and perhaps copy" Harrell's spending records for the previous four years. State law requires elected officials to maintain those records for four years.
Despite the fact that we filed our request to inspect Harrell's campaign records, his spokesman, Greg Foster, forwarded our request to House clerk Charles Reid for an answer. Reid wrote, "My role as an [sic] Clerk and as an attorney is restricted to the House of Representatives and the membership in their official capacity as House members – not in their personal or private matters, including campaigns." Reid referred us back to Harrell's campaign for answers.
Harrell's campaign records also show he was reimbursed another $78,000 from his campaign account for travel, office parties, staff dinners, cell phones, computer services and flowers.
"In this case, there doesn't seem to be any gray area; the law is clear: you cannot use your campaign funds for personal use. You can't convert your campaign funds to personal use. A private plane is not a reasonable, ordinary expense-period," South Carolina Policy Council executive President Ashley Landess told WIS. Landess filed a formal complaint against Harrell with the Attorney General's office last week, asking for the investigation into Harrell's spending.
Wilson's office forwarded the request to State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel. "Consistent with our usual long-standing police, we are requesting that SLED assign an agent to conduct this inquiry," Chief Deputy Attorney General John McIntosh wrote, citing his office's conversation with Landess as the reason for the request.
In a statement to WIS last week, Harrell's spokesman Greg Foster calls the whole thing a smear campaign.
"This is a baseless attack that is driven by personal and political vendetta. What little "facts" I have seen this political group put forward have been disproven and the rest appears to be the product of an over-active imagination. The real reason why this political group did not file anything at the appropriate place, the House Ethics Committee, is because it would prevent them from holding any more press conferences. And as shown by their lack of fact and substance, this political group's goal is to conduct a smear campaign against me in the media."
"A vendetta? That's pretty ridiculous and he's going to have to do a lot better than that," Landess told WIS, "It's not okay there's no independent questioning of these activities. He can't simply tell us to trust him," Landess said.
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