COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to six charges of using campaign funds for personal use and resigned from the state House of Representatives during a court hearing Thursday morning.
During the hearing, Harrell entered the plea deal and agreed to three years probation, a $30,000 fine, forfeit all money in his re-election campaign account, pay $93,958 to the state's general fund, not run for any public office for three years, and resign from his Charleston seat immediately. Harrell will also undergo a polygraph test and testify in other cases, according to the plea deal.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe read the plea deal to Judge Casey Manning. Pascoe praised the work of investigators during the hearing.
"The investigation that Lt. Kevin Baker put together is in this case is probably the most thorough and best investigation I've seen in my 20+ years as a prosecutor," Pascoe said.
Harrell largely kept to himself during the hearing and spoke only once when prompted by Judge Manning.
"This has been a particularly hard two years on my family," Harrell said. "Doing this today, we hope brings an end to this."
The former Speaker's resignation does indeed end a chapter in the continuing ethics story surrounding Harrell that began in 2012 after reporters and representatives from the South Carolina Policy Council and Common Cause South Carolina began looking into his campaign accounts and flight records.
We began to dig into Harrell's accounts and personally delivered a Freedom of Information Act request to see even more of those records. That request went ignored by the Speaker's office.
Our investigation found Harrell reimbursed himself more than $250,000 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'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.
Harrell was indicted in September on nine separate charges from misconduct in office to misusing campaign funds. The indictment states Harrell paid himself out of his campaign account for non-existent round-trip flights from Charleston to Columbia. It also states Harrell traveled in his private plane to a baseball tournament in Florida. Prosecutors also say Harrell lied to law enforcement about his campaign expenses. Along with those allegations, the indictments says Harrell tried to cover his tracks by changing entries in his pilot logbook, creating fake flight schedules, and even misinforming officers.
Harrell, who always maintained his innocence, was suspended as speaker weeks ago.
Following his guilty plea, Harrell said nothing heading out of the courtroom, but released a statement saying there appears to be a "fundamental disagreement over the proper use of a campaign account to fly a private aircraft to conduct state and campaign business."
"But to continue this fight would have taken at least another year, possibly two," the statement said.
"Cathy and I are deeply appreciative to everyone who has offered words of encouragement and prayers on our behalf. My passion for our state remains as strong as it has ever been, and I will continue to look for way to serve the Lowcountry and South Carolina."
Meanwhile, others have lined up to release statements and speak their peace on the Harrell case. None of them has been more vocal than Common Cause South Carolina leader John Crangle, who, along with Ashley Landess with the South Carolina Policy Council, worked to have Attorney General Alan Wilson prosecute this case.
Crangle attended the hearing and offered his thoughts after Harrell's plea was entered.
"I mean, this guy's been out of control the last six, seven years," Crangle said. "I've been on his track for eight years."
Crangle didn't stop there. He claims Harrell's fellow lawmakers were "complicit" in this case.
"They're all to blame," Crangle said. "Every member of the legislature who did not complain about what Bobby Harrell was doing the last five or six years is complicit in the long run. They all should have been putting a stop to this a long time ago."
Gov. Nikki Haley also chimed in, calling the case a "serious situation."
"It's a sad situation for South Carolina, but it goes back to we have pushed for the last two years for ethics reform," Haley said. "We've said we need to have income disclosures for our legislators, we've said we need to have independent investigations, the Senate killed it both years. We're going to come back for a stronger ethics reform. We now have our proof that we need it, and we're going to do all we can to get it passed."