- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell again Tuesday called on the attorney general to immediately release a state police review of ethics allegations against Harrell, saying he believes it will exonerate him.

Harrell repeated his request in a news conference shortly before the opening of the 2014 legislative session. He said he believes the timing of Attorney General Alan Wilson’s decision to send the case to the State Grand Jury on Monday was deliberate but that it won’t affect his job as speaker.

“I believe it was intended to inflict political damage to me,” said the Republican from Charleston, whose wife, Cathy, accompanied him to the event. “I’m not distracted. The House isn’t distracted. But the attorney general needs to release the SLED report now.”

Wilson’s announcement via news release came a month after he received a report from the State Law Enforcement Division on its investigation into Harrell. The state’s chief prosecutor, also a Republican, had asked SLED last February to review allegations of ethical misconduct brought by a libertarian group and a government watchdog group.

Wilson spokesman Mark Powell said it would be illegal for his office or SLED to release any report in an ongoing criminal investigation. He declined to comment further since it’s before the State Grand Jury.

But Harrell, speaker since 2005, said he believes Wilson breached any confidentiality with the news release. Harrell repeated that he’s done nothing wrong.

“I was shocked and blindsided by yesterday’s news. Both the attorney general’s office and SLED have continuously reassured me and my attorneys that they found nothing that concerned them,” he said. “I fully expected that any day now, there would be a release from the attorney general’s office saying the investigation was over and there was no factual reason to pursue it any further.”

Harrell called the complaint from the South Carolina Policy Council a blatant smear campaign that bypassed the normal process. But he said he cooperated fully with the investigation and provided all documents requested. Normally, legislative committees handle ethics allegations concerning their members.

Council President Ashley Landess has previously laughed off Harrell’s accusations, saying her criticism isn’t personal.

Wilson initially declined to take the complaint directly. But, in a letter to state police last year, he noted that Landess had brought to his attention possible conflicts of interest with any review by the House Ethics Committee - an argument both she and Common Cause director John Crangle made for months as they considered filing a complaint.

Landess said there’s no way a panel of House members, aided by House staff, could objectively investigate the House speaker. She believes that Harrell is seeking an exception to the secrecy of the grand jury process by calling for the report’s release.

That process “should not be compromised to placate one politician,” she said.

Crangle said he hopes the SLED report is released, but only if the investigation’s done. He noted Harrell’s “waiving his claim to secrecy.”

He said Wilson’s done nothing wrong in alerting the media or by not giving Harrell advance notice of his decision. Normally, people don’t find out a case is sent to the State Grand Jury until they’re indicted, he said.

“That’s just a distraction,” Crangle said. “Bobby Harrell’s making excuses and full of self-pity.”

The complaint the attorney general received last year alleges that Harrell boosted his finances by using influence to get a permit for his pharmaceutical business. Landess also took issue with Harrell appointing his brother to a committee that screens judicial candidates and picks the top three for each seat, from which the Legislature then chooses.

Other allegations stem from a 2012 Post and Courier report that raised accusations Harrell couldn’t account for money withdrawn from his campaign and had used his campaign account for personal expenses. The report pointed to generic descriptions Harrell gave on quarterly campaign filings to explain his reimbursements.

Harrell said then he’d followed state ethics law, which requires forms provide a “brief description” of each expense. He said he’d be more specific going forward. State law allows public officials to use campaign donations for campaigning or expenses related to their office duties, which are broad for Harrell. Critics believe he overbilled his campaign.

Harrell presided over the House chamber for Tuesday’s short meeting. Later Tuesday, he missed a speaking engagement before an annual meeting of business and industry leaders. His spokesman said Harrell had to seek doctor’s care for flu-like symptoms he’s been fighting for more than a week.

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