Harrell speaks with reporters at a legislative workshop last week in Columbia
Today, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson announced he had sent his investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell to a state grand jury. The attorney general had no other comment, noting that the law prevented him from doing so.
Last winter, the State Law Enforcement Division began investigating the speaker after Ashley Landess, president of the limited-government think tank S.C. Policy Council, filed an ethics complaint about Harrell. In it she asked Wilson to find out if the House speaker used his office for financial gain and campaign funds for personal purposes. Prior to that, ThePost & Courier reported that Harrell had reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, with much of it going to operate a private airplane he pilots. SLED agents finished an initial inquiry last month and gave their report to Wilson.
Harrell maintains he did nothing wrong, and today said he was shocked and disappointed with Wilson’s move. “At every stage of this investigation, it was reiterated to us that investigators have found no areas of concern,” Harrell said in a prepared statement. “Given every indication we have received from SLED and the attorney general, I am disappointed and shocked by this sudden change of course.”
Harrell also accuses Wilson of running to the press about the news before contacting Harrell’s attorneys. However, Wilson’s office denies the charge. According to the AG’s spokesman Mark Powell, “Mr. Harrell’s attorney was contacted at least 30 minutes prior to the release going out.”
When asked about the discrepancy, Harrell’s lawyer, Bart Daniel, declined to answer, saying it’s the media’s job to play referee. Not to be outdone, Harrell made his own stunning move today, asking Wilson to make his SLED case file public.
Here are six takeaways from Bobby Harrell's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.
The investigation just got worse for Harrell
The state grand jury has much more subpoena power than SLED, and that means it can get documents and records easier. Also, the grand jury can put witnesses under oath, while SLED agents can’t compel anyone to talk to them if they don’t want to.
Timing is important
Why would this news come just one day before the start of this year’s legislative session? Maybe it's Wilson's way of sending a message to Harrell and the rest of the state that the attorney general's office isn’t messing around. The drama about whether or not Wilson contacted one of Harrell’s lawyers before alerting the press only adds to the tension between the two parties.
A grand jury is a safe place for Wilson, a dangerous one for Harrell
By handing over the investigation to a grand jury, Wilson is letting it be known that he wants to keep politics out of the process. This is a smart move by the first-term attorney general who has already brought down one fellow Republican, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. As for Harrell, if he decides to defend himself before the grand jury, he can’t even bring his attorney to the hearings.
It’s a balls-out, but ultimately pointless move for Harrell to ask Wilson to publicize his SELD report
When Harrell called on the attorney general to make his SLED file public, he added this: “This report contains the facts of this matter, facts that have been kept from the public and even kept from my attorneys and me.” The speaker of the House obviously thinks he’s in the clear on the matter. However, the move amounts to little more than political theater. The attorney general's office says it cannot and will not release the SLED report.
Ashley Landess is pleased
Today, Landess said she thinks Wilson is taking the investigation seriously.“For now, I am optimistic that there won’t be a whitewash and that the public will be represented and get the justice and the explanation, hopefully, that we deserve,” she says. “And that’s what we were asking for: that this be pursued and that the system work equally across the board for all of these powerful politicians.”
If Harrell goes down, his colleagues will begin jockeying for the speakership
If Harrell was forced from office, the House speaker pro tem, Rep. Jay Lucas of Darlington, would not move into the post automatically. His fellow House members would have to hold an election. With Harrell out, there could be a real knife fight.