Did South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell break campaign finance laws by reimbursing himself nearly a quarter-of-a-million dollars in travel? That's the question several watchdog groups want answered.
Harrell charged more than 100 flights between Columbia and Charleston back to his campaign using contributions to pay for what he calls "legislative travel".
Records show Harrell used his Cirrus SR-22 to fly the 91 nautical miles between his home and Columbia. These records show that in just four years, Harrell charged his campaign account more than $247,000 for travel. He says it's official business.
What we haven't been able to get are Harrell's invoices to show exactly how he spent the money.
"The very incomplete and dodging answers he's given to the media aggravates one's suspicion that he's hiding something," said John Crangle from Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Members of Common Cause, the South Carolina Policy Council, and the South Carolina Progressive Network met Tuesday to demand Harrell hand over his spending records and for Attorney General Alan Wilson to investigate whether the speaker spent the money lawfully.
The group sees Harrell's campaign reimbursements as "extraordinary", given the fact nearly every other lawmaker drives to Columbia, and doesn't come close to Harrell's spending.
"If it were any other politician, he would be under investigation," said Ashley Landess from the South Carolina Policy Council.
"Of the six members of the House Ethics Committee, Mr. Harrell has given five of them at least $1,000 in the last few years," said Brett Bursey of the South Carolina Progressive Network.
Bursey is referring to money those members received from the Palmetto Leadership Council, a political action committee in which the Speaker is affiliated.
Landess, Crangle, and Bursey want an independent investigation of Harrell's spending. If he's investigated, the House Ethics Committee would do it. The problem, according to the trio, is that they're afraid Harrell could use his position to influence the committee.
The Speaker's Deputy Chief of Staff, Greg Foster, stood by and listened to the news conference. Foster is on Harrell's campaign payroll, earning $1,000 a month to maintain the speaker's web page. The campaign's paid him more than $40,000 since 2008. We asked Foster for the records.
In an email, Foster said they weren't going to show their records to us.
"It has been thoroughly demonstrated, and reported by media outlets statewide, that Speaker Harrell is in full compliance with all aspects of the Ethics Act. These political groups are attacking the Speaker for using privately raised campaign funds to pay for many expenses that could have been charged to taxpayers. In fact, the original newspaper to report on this issue has since printed several corrections to their original article admitting that they made false accusations. It's also important to note that the portions of this newspaper's report that were read at the press conference came from the corrected version of the article, not the original factually incorrect version.
"It is clear that these political attacks are not about ethics laws, truth or facts. These attacks are serious - and seriously misleading. In August, a Charleston press conference held by many of these same groups made other unfounded political attacks on Speaker Harrell because of his support of I-526. Two years ago, these same groups held a State House press conference attacking the Speaker for not supporting a number of conservative bills, not only had all those bills successfully passed the House, most were sponsored by Harrell himself. Different day, similar political attacks, still no factual basis."
The Attorney General's Office told Crangle they had no plans to investigate the speaker's spending. Now, these watchdogs hope public pressure convinces Harrell to turn over his records.
"We hope that citizens will at least be aware -- again -- of the heavy-handed degree of power this politician has and what seems to be a shut down inside Columbia for questioning him," said Landess.
We simply wanted Speaker Harrell to show us his records so we could show you how he spent that campaign cash.
We've filed open records requests with the Speaker's o
ffice for those records, and we hope to have them soon.
Copyright 2012 WIS. All rights reserved.