COLUMBIA — A limited-government advocate said Tuesday that 2006 emails show House Speaker Bobby Harrell used undue influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business – a claim Harrell dismissed as ridiculous.
Harrell noted that one email even specifies that he adamantly asked for no special treatment.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council, a think tank that advocates for limited government and individual responsibility, made the accusation before a non-legislative committee studying ways to strengthen the state’s ethics laws. Landess told the panel that the emails dating to May 2006 highlight the need to change who investigates ethics complaints and to require office-holders to disclose all of their income sources.
No complaint has been filed against Harrell, though Landess says she may do so.
House and Senate ethics panels now handle complaints against their own members – something that critics such as Landess liken to a fox guarding the henhouse. The panel, appointed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, has no authority but is expected to issue its recommendations on changes next week.
House and Senate panels are also looking at ways to reform ethics laws. Harrell said he wholeheartedly agrees with full income disclosure and is waiting to see what the panels say about ethics committees before forming an opinion. Harrell, first elected in 1992, said he’s never been before the House Ethics Committee.
The accusation against him involves a 2006 state permit to Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals, a company that buys non-narcotic pharmaceuticals in bulk and re-packages them for doctors to dispense to their patients. Harrell is a co-owner in the company that he says sells to doctors’ offices in more than half of states. By bypassing the pharmacy, he says, patients can get their medicine immediately and a little cheaper.
Landess said it was an obvious conflict of interest.
“He used his office to get special treatment. At least one public official believed that was happening,” Landess said, referring to emails purportedly written by Bobby Bradham, then a member of the Board of Pharmacy, a division of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Bradham did not immediately return a message Tuesday from the Associated Press.
Landess said she received the emails several months ago and does not know the original source.
Harrell, an insurance agency owner who became speaker in June 2005, called Landess’ accusation another baseless charge from a longtime critic.
“Just like any other small business owner, I talked to the agencies involved where the business is concerned, but I made it clear to them I didn’t want to be treated any differently,” he said. “What I did want was the agency to tell us the proper way to conduct the business, and they did.”
In one email, a writer identified as Bradham notes that Harrell had a phone conference with him and the director of the pharmacy board; Bradham tells his fellow board members they should expect a call too, saying the lawmaker and his assistant were “not happy.” In a follow-up email with the pharmacy board director, Bradham expresses concern that the company owner (Harrell) – rather than the company’s pharmacist consultant, who would be responsible for adhering to the law – is talking with members.
“By conversing with Bobby Harrell, we were already making this `different’ since he was so adamant in his conversation that he wanted this enterprise to be treated the same as any other operation and not any exceptions be made because of `who’ he was!” reads the email from May 25, 2006. “The exception was already being made.”
The next day, he writes he’s been told that the company had already received letters of clearance from the Federal Drug Administration and the state agency’s legal staff.
Harrell said no one told him the board should be talking to the pharmacy representative instead of him. He said he wasn’t upset, but did note the business model had to change from his original plan to comply with the law.
“The whole goal was the proper way to run the business,” he said.
Landess points to the permit application’s cover letter, with a handwritten message on Harrell’s office letterhead stating, “We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request.” It’s signed Bobby Harrell, though Harrell confirmed it’s not his signature.
He said he probably asked an assistant to send a note with the application, and that’s what she chose to send. He stressed he pays for the stationery, so it wasn’t sent on taxpayer-paid paper.
Landess said that’s not the point.