At Richland County courthouse, South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty on Oct. 23 to six charges, including use of campaign funds for personal use and misconduct in office. Sentenced to three years of probation, Harrell must also pay a $30,000 fine, Judge Casey Manning ruled this morning, as well as $94,000 in compensation for misuse of campaign funds. Today’s ruling brings an end to investigations conducted – and regularly delayed – for two years.
Now required to resign in full, Harrell can’t hold public office again for at least three years. As a result, his current re-election campaign for House Dist. 114 will be halted, after an expected formal withdrawal, less than two weeks before Election Day. Democrat challenger Mary Tinkler already led in private polls, however. Tinkler’s sole opponent in the race should now be only Green Party candidate Sue Edward.
Despite his guilty pleas, Harrell still doesn’t acknowledge validity of the charges, which were based on his use of almost $300,000 in campaign donations for personal use, including costs of a personal airplane and the salary of a staff member who works in Harrell’s private insurance office. In a statement issued prior to the hearing, Harrell said “I have agreed to this today to end what has been a two-year nightmare. This has been incredibly hard on my family and me, and it is time for it to end. We have 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 to fight this would have taken at least another year, possibly two.”
Today’s court ruling should affect other races, too, says Ethel D. Campbell, chair of the Democratic Party in Dorchester County, part of which includes Dist. 114. As she notes, part of the problems and delays regarding Harrell’s conviction result from Dorchester’s other two Republican legislators, Jenny Horne (Dist. 94) and Chris Murphy (Dist. 98).
“Shortly after news of Harrell’s violations first came out last year,” Campbell notes, “both Murphy and Horne sponsored a bill (H.3945) that made the legislature itself the supervisor of ethics investigations on elected officials, and by appointment of its own ethics commission. The bill also lets House and Senate determine the punishments for those violations, too. That only protects themselves, and leaves the electing public completely out of the picture.
“After more public information on Harrell’s offenses came out this year, on Apr. 9 Murphy co-sponsored H.5072, which allows state legislature to appoint its own prosecutor when one of its members faces ethics charges. He removed his name from the bill the very next day, but only after ensuring it got to the floor for immediate vote, skipping committee review.”
Both Murphy and Horne were recipients of maximum campaign donations from Harrell’s Palmetto Leadership Council PAC. In addition, recent news of alleged federal offenses name Horne as a state legislator questioned by the FBI. She’s refused comment to press about the investigation.
“In less than two weeks, the public has a chance to regain representation,” Campbell offers. “They need to elect Damian Daly to House 94 and Rebekah Patrick to House 98. Throughout his campaign, Damian’s motto has been ‘end government corruption, greed, and complacency.’ Rebekah’s platform calls for complete accountability and transparency.
“The public is tired of elected officials who represent no one but themselves and their political friends,” Campbell concludes. “Mary Tinkler, Damian Daly, and Rebekah Patrick can return government to the public interest.”