COLUMBIA — The State Attorney General’s Office has asked the State Law Enforcement Division to open an investigation into whether S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell violated state ethics laws.
In a letter to SLED chief Mark Keel on Thursday, the attorney general said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, had “delivered information to this office alleging possible criminal violations by Speaker Bobby Harrell.”
“Consistent with our long-standing policy, we are requesting that SLED assign an agent to conduct this inquiry,” John McIntosh, chief deputy attorney general, wrote in the letter to Keel.
Spokesman Thom Berry said SLED is “reviewing that letter and will take appropriate action.”
In a statement provided by his spokesman, Harrell, a Charleston Republican, called the complaint “a baseless attack that is driven by a 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,” Harrell wrote.
Landess lays out five allegations that “seem to demonstrate a pattern of abuse of power that is extremely disturbing,” she wrote to the attorney general. All of the allegations involve the state ethics law and relate to incidents that have been reported publicly, she said.
Last year, Harrell faced media questions over whether he legally reimbursed himself $280,000 from his campaign account since 2008. Many of the reimbursements were for Harrell’s use of his personal plane while traveling on state business. Subsequently, Harrell said he did not have records for some expenses and returned about $23,000 to his campaign.
Landess also said Harrell’s appointment of his brother to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates candidates for judgeships, may have broken state law.
Last month, Landess accused Harrell of misusing his position to help his pharmaceutical business. She provided media with emails written in 2006 by a member of the S.C. Board of Pharmacy expressing concern over Harrell’s request that his business be allowed to sell repackaged prescription drugs.
Landess also produced a letter to the Pharmacy Board written on the speaker’s office stationery and signed with his name, saying, “We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request.”
Harrell denied seeking special treatment for his business, which federal and state authorities later approved to sell the drugs. He said he did not write the note, but asked a staff member to do so.
At the time, Harrell said Landess, the head of a libertarian think tank in Columbia, was seeking revenge after he did not reappoint her to a state commission.
“This was never about just him in particular,” Landess said Thursday. “It is about the process – it is about the concentration of power.”
In his statement, Harrell questioned Landess’s motive for filing her complaint with the attorney general instead of the House Ethics Committee.
“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.”
Complaints filed with the House Ethics Committee are secret until the committee finds probable cause of a violation.
Landess said she filed her complaint with the attorney general to avoid potential conflicts of interest that would have sprung up had the House Ethics Committee tried to investigate Harrell, the House’s most powerful member.
Landess said as the presiding officer of the House, Harrell is in charge of all the House employees that would have been responsible for running the investigation. And, Landess said, Harrell’s office would “ultimately be responsible for authorizing the hiring and payment of an independent investigator.”
The House “could not ensure complete impartiality,” she said.
House Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham, R-West Columbia, said he met with Landess earlier this week to review the committee’s “process and procedures” but did not discuss the nature of the complaint. Landess shared her concerns about the “supervisory role the speaker of the House might have over committee staff” and decided to direct her complaint to the attorney general, Bingham wrote, adding, “I told her that was certainly her right.”
Attorney General Alan Wilson has said repeatedly that he was waiting on the House Ethics Committee to investigate the allegations against fellow Republican Harrell before his office became involved.
This is not the first time Wilson has asked SLED to investigate a public official.
Last year, Wilson’s office investigated then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard in a probe that led to his indictment by the State Grand Jury and his subsequent resignation.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said he looks forward to seeing the investigation’s outcome.
“If (Harrell has) done nothing wrong, then it needs to come out that he’s done nothing wrong, rather than (have him) live under a cloud of suspicion,” Rutherford said.