COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A day after airing a three-part investigative series into South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, we still have not heard from Harrell. We have left multiple messages at Harrell's Charleston-based insurance business and with his State House spokesman, but Harrell has yet to return those calls.
Harrell has spent the last five months under a State Law Enforcement Division investigation. However, media investigations into how Harrell spent his campaign cash started nearly one year ago.
State law allows campaign money to be spent on items "related to the campaign or the office held," according to the State Ethics Commission's rules. The commission goes on to state, "Use of campaign funds for personal expenses is prohibited. Candidates should maintain a mileage log for reimbursement of expenses related to travel. Candidates may not purchase gas with campaign funds."
Was Harrell's spending from his campaign account for travel using his airplane and other expenses legal? Without seeing Harrell's receipts, invoices, and documents related to each expenditure, we don't know. Harrell has not turned any of that information over to WIS, even after repeated attempts to see them.
On Feb. 14, 2013, the South Carolina Policy Council and its leader, Ashley Landess, asked S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to investigate how Bobby Harrell spent nearly a half-million dollars of campaign contributions. Landess' complaint questioned Harrell's use of campaign money to fly his personal airplane from his home in Charleston to Columbia. The House Ethics Committee had jurisdiction over any Harrell investigation, but according to committee member and Charleston County Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, the Ethics Committee did "nothing" with the Harrell case.
Wilson then forwarded the request to investigate to SLED.
Days later, SLED confirmed they were investigating the case, but would not give details about which agents were assigned to the investigation. SLED spokesman Thom Berry said multiple agents from two separate regions were investigating.
The SLED investigation continues as of this report.
Bobby Harrell's campaign records show he's reimbursed himself, campaign staffers, and other members of his State House office for "Legislative Travel" out of his campaign account, our analysis of his ethics filings show. Since 2008, Harrell's expenditures show travel reimbursements for 81 trips totaling $294,819.56.
Since 2008, most of the reimbursements, 40 flights, went directly to Harrell. Those totaled $231,561.
The state ethics law requires politicians to keep detailed records and logs related to campaign and office-related travel. We've asked Harrell for those records on multiple occasions since we started looking into his spending last September. We filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with Harrell—one hand-delivered to him in person at the State House in January—but he still has not responded.
Harrell's plane, a Cirrus SR-22, is a half-million dollar single-engine airplane. A source says Harrell blocked his tail number in June 2012 after reporters started questioning his flights and reimbursements. Flight logs from FlightAware, a commercial flight tracking company, show records bearing Harrell's tail number -- N749CD -- stopped being logged in the system on June 26, 2012. An attempt to track Harrell's tail number on FlightAware returns the message, "This aircraft (N749CD) is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator."
Federal Aviation Administration records show Harrell's plane is registered to a South Carolina corporation, PierPont Air, LLC out of Charleston. An online search for an address came back to an office building on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston. We went to the address and found an empty building. An employee at a check cashing business next door said the building had been empty since November 2012 and before that it was a call center.
The employee said she did not remember anything representing an airplane being located there since she worked there. The employee confirmed Harrell owned the buildings.
State records show PierPont Air, LLC is actually registered to Harrell's brother, John Harrell. John is an attorney in Charleston and works out of Harrell Square, the Harrell family business off Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. We went to John's law firm to question him about the plane's ownership, but our calls were never returned.
The speaker's campaign records show he paid OL Thompson Construction for five trips totaling $14,762.48 between 2008 and as recently as July 2012. Every expenditure listed the reason for the flights as "Legislative Travel," except two trips in July 2012. Those trips listed "Trip to Myrtle Beach" and "Trip to Darlington" as the reason for the spending.
Here are the amounts Harrell reimbursed OL Thompson Construction for:
We went to OL Thompson Construction's Charleston office to ask Thompson about the reason for the travel reimbursements. A message left with Thompson's receptionist was never returned. However, an unidentified office employee confronted us on the public right-of-way outside Thompson's offices to question us about our reason for being there.
"We'd like to talk to [Thompson]; it's dealing with Bobby Harrell and some campaign money," Barr told the employee.
"Oh, that's crazy. That's all crap," the unidentified employee said. "Bobby paid for everything he did when he used the plane. You all are trying to wrap something around something that's not even there."
When asked about what Harrell rented the plane for, the woman said, "He rented it from us, period. I mean, we have nothing -- I mean, it's just crazy."
As the Thompson employee walked away, she threatened to call Charleston Police. Officers never came.
Campaign records also show Harrell paid University of South Carolina pilot Larry Evans $1,476 for "professional services-pilot" on June 22, 2010. We visited Evans' North Charleston home to ask him about the purpose of the flight and left a message with his wife. Evans never returned our call.
We don't know whether the flight was campaign-related or connected to Harrell's official duties as Speaker of the House. Harrell has not provided records to us to show the reason for this flight.
DETAINED AT THE CHARLESTON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
After weeks of searching for Bobby Harrell's airplane, a source led us to Atlantic Aviation at the Charleston International Airport on June 18. Airport workers confirmed Harrell keeps his plane at Atlantic Aviation and it was kept in hangar "C."
Atlantic Aviation terminal manager William David Keigans granted us access to the terminal's parking lot to shoot video of the hangars and airplanes. However, after learning we had questioned employees about Harrell's plane, Keigans called airport police. After meeting with Charleston County Aviation Authority officer Kevin McGowan in the Atlantic Aviation parking lot, we left the property and parked along S. Aviation Avenue to shoot video.
As we were setting up our camera on the public right-of-way, McGowan pulled in behind us and activated his blue lights. McGowan said we could not shoot video of the airport even though we were shooting from public property.
McGowan called U.S. Air Force security police to the scene, citing concerns that we may have shot video of the Charleston Air Force base. Air Force SSGT K. Stafford responded to the scene and took our reporter's license and media identification. Stafford pushed our camera away at one point, stating we couldn't shoot video of her or the air base.
Both CCAA and the Air Force detained our crew on the side of S. Aviation Avenue for nearly an hour as both governmental agencies worked to figure out whether we'd broken any laws. At one point, McGowan grabbed our camera and ordered it "pointed at the ground," when we tried to shoot video of Atlantic Aviation. Neither agency charged our crew with any crime.
McGowan ordered us to leave the public property line along S. Aviation Avenue and threatened to arrest us for trespassing if we did not leave. CCAA director William New, Jr. issued two apology letters to Barr and WIS TV for his officer's interference with our constitutional right to gather news from the public right of way around the airport.
HARRELL'S COMPUTERS AND WEB SITE
Although the South Carolina Policy Council's complaint primarily focused on allegations that Bobby Harrell used campaign money to fly his personal airplane, we decided to look at every expenditure from the speaker's account. We found Harrell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on computer services, cell phones, his personal Web site and memberships, meals, and receptions to two private Columbia dinner clubs.
Harrell's records show since 2008, he's spent $117,507 on computers, "computer services," "computer equipment," "Legislative email," and to maintain his website at BobbyHarrell.com. The spending was monthly and carried on inside and outside of election cycles.
GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN WORKING FOR CAMPAIGN
Bobby Harrell's records show his taxpayer-paid spokesman, Greg Foster, has worked full-time for the campaign since 2009. Taxpayers pay Foster an annual salary for his work in Harrell's State House office.
Since 2009, Foster was paid $1,000 a month – a total of $39,268.84 – to help maintain the "Speaker's website," according to Harrell's ethics findings. Foster has not answered questions as to when and where he's performed that work. State law prohibits state employees from working on campaigns on state time and on State House grounds.
Records also show Foster was reimbursed from Harrell's campaign account at a total of $11,819 for "Legislative Travel," since 2008. Neither Harrell nor Foster has provided records to show whether that travel was campaign-related.
Foster and Harrell agreed to interview with WIS on June 26, but both men left the House chambers without submitting to an interview. In an e-mail, Foster would later ask to reschedule the interview.
"The Veto session ran longer than we anticipated and Speaker Harrell had to leave in order to make it to something that was scheduled prior to us trying to schedule this interview. Unfortunately, we will have to reschedule this interview for a later date," said the e-mail.
Multiple attempts to reschedule with Harrell and Foster have been unsuccessful as they will not give a date to meet with WIS.
CELL PHONES AND PRIVATE DINNER CLUB MEMBERSHIPS
As we went deeper into Bobby Harrell's campaign spending, we found monthly reimbursements for "phones" and "communications."
Harrell's campaign records show monthly reimbursements to Verizon and AT&T since 2008. However, starting in December 2010 through November 2012, records show Harrell's campaign started directly reimbursing Harrell for monthly phone bills. The Harrell direct reimbursements range from a low of $368.43 to one bill as high as $711.52. We wanted to know who on Harrell's campaign had these phones and how many phones Harrell was reimbursing himself for.
Harrell has not turned over his campaign records to answer those questions.
The reimbursements also included memberships, dues, meals and receptions to two private Columbia dinner clubs. Since 2008, Harrell's records show he spent $54,834.45 on cell phones and another $54,812.02 at private clubs.
Harrell's spent campaign cash on memberships, dues, meals and receptions to two private dinner clubs in Columbia. Harrell's paid The Palmetto Club and the Capital City club membership dues every month since 2008, the ethics filings show. Harrell's expenditures on meals indicate "Legislative breakfast," "Legislative breakfast meetings," "Legislative dinners," and "Legislative lunch," as the reason for the spending.
ATTEMPTS TO REACH HARRELL FOR COMMENT
We have made multiple attempts to reach Bobby Harrell to see his spending records and to talk with him about this story. Harrell, after agreeing to interview with us on the last day of the legislative session, left the House chambers through a back door and never spoke to us on camera.
We pushed this story back a week and a half to accommodate Harrell's schedule, but he will not give us a date that he can meet with us. We've also filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with Harrell's campaign for access to his spending records to see whether his spending was campaign-related or connected to his public office. Harrell has not responded.
In our last attempt, we drove to Harrell's Charleston-based insurance office Monday morning to meet with him. Harrell was not in the office so we left a business card for him to return our call. As of this report, House Speaker Bobby Harrell has not responded.