COLUMBIA — Campaign spending by House Speaker Bobby Harrell has come under fire recently, ratcheting up pressure to overhaul state ethics laws criticized for being vague and open to interpretation.
Harrell, one of the state’s most powerful politicians, was adamant he did nothing improper and showed The Associated Press documents Tuesday to back up his assertions. He acknowledged, however, that he could be more specific on campaign finance forms about how he is reimbursed from his campaign account when he uses his personal credit card and pays bills online, among other things.
Harrell, speaker since 2005, has reimbursed himself about $280,000 from his campaign account since the summer of 2008, according to quarterly spending reports filed with the state. The reasons for the spending were largely generic, such as “legislative travel” and “conference fees.” Some were downright confusing: “staff Christmas,” which Harrell explained to AP was presents for staff.
The vague descriptions, first reported by The Post and Courier, brought about accusations that the Charleston Republican couldn’t account for hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from his campaign. A government watchdog group has called for an investigation, but South Carolina’s law doesn’t appear to require him to be more specific on the forms.
“The current ethics structure is grossly flawed. We need a different type of enforcement mechanism,” said John Crangle of the watchdog group Common Cause.
Harrell has not faced strong opposition in years, and with his name recognition, he doesn’t have to spend tons of money to win re-election. Still, he’s raised $470,000 in the last two years, and has more than $144,000 available, according to his latest campaign finance report.
State law allows campaign donations to be spent on campaigning or official duties, which are broad for Harrell because of his leadership role.
“The way I’ve been doing it is within the law,” Harrell said. “Going forward, I probably will be more specific.”
Last week, Harrell put nearly $23,000 back into his campaign account, acknowledging in a letter to the Ethics Committee that a four-year review determined he didn’t have records for that amount in withdrawals. While he believes the expenses were legitimate, he said, he doesn’t have the documents to support them.
He attributed the missing records to moving an office in Charleston in 2011.
Ethics reform promises to be much-debated when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Both the House and Senate are working on plans to close ethics loopholes, such as requiring public officials to disclose all of their income and who’s paying them. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, herself the subject of an investigation, toured the state touting her own plan.
Haley, a former House member, was cleared by the House Ethics Committee in June of allegations she illegally lobbied for a hospital and an engineering firm as a state representative.
Harrell criticized Haley’s fly-around, saying then her own ethics case emphasized the need for reform.
State law, which also offers virtually no guidance on reimbursements, requires candidates to maintain expense records for four years – something Harrell says he has done.
Harrell, a 10-term incumbent, showed AP a stack of documents to back up his withdrawals, including American Express bills, phone bills, hotel invoices and pay stubs. Harrell did not allow copies to be made, saying the bills also contained personal spending and information. He also noted they were not public documents under state law.
The director of a libertarian think tank called on Harrell to release the documents.
“We need to see the documentation to have complete confidence the speaker did indeed reimburse himself for actual cost and that the travel is legitimate,” said Ashley Landess of the SC Policy Council, which is promising to stir up a grass-roots movement to demand ethics reform.
Most of Harrell’s largest reimbursements involved flights on his single-engine plane to Columbia and to legislative events across the state. For those, he offered spreadsheets, such as one detailing a $17,325 withdrawal in May 2011 for 30 trips flown over seven months.
State law does not address how such reimbursements should be calculated. Harrell, who holds a commercial pilot’s license, said he determines what charter companies charge to fly his same aircraft for the leg, then reimburses himself less than that.
Harrell said he saves taxpayers money by flying his own plane on trips when he could’ve used the state plane, and it allows him to get to multiple events in a day he otherwise couldn’t.
Crangle, of Common Cause, said he will try to file his complaint with the House Ethics Committee this week, and will ask the panel to waive its jurisdiction and send the case to the attorney general. He contends there’s a conflict of interest because five of its six members received donations from the Palmetto Leadership Council, a pro-business fundraising group Harrell supports.
The committee’s options, if it found wrongdoing, include public or private reprimands, fines, or ordering corrective action, which can include paying a campaign back.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford paid the state’s largest ethics fine in 2010, when he agreed to pay $74,000 to resolve dozens of state Ethics Commission charges that he violated state ethics laws with his campaign spending and travel. He also agreed to put about $3,000 back into his campaign account as a reimbursement for personal use of campaign funds.