- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell suspended himself from office Thursday, a day after a grand jury indicted him on charges of misconduct and using campaign donations for personal use.

Harrell, speaker since 2005, said he believes it’s the best decision for the House and the people its members represent, though it appears his move may have avoided a forced suspension. The 58-year-old Charleston Republican is charged with nine misdemeanor counts.

Harrell’s suspension from office means he can’t participate in any legislative actions or conduct any official duties while he faces charges. Meanwhile, Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, immediately steps up as speaker.

“I have great respect for this institution and for the people of South Carolina,” wrote Harrell, first elected in 1992, in a letter to the House clerk. “I have always sought to act in their best interest and continue to do so now by taking this action and suspending myself from office.”

His letter came out shortly before the attorney general’s office issued an opinion that Harrell had to be immediately suspended. The advisory opinion, requested by two Democratic House members, carries no legal weight.

State law requires legislators be suspended if they are charged with crimes punishable by more than a year in prison. One charge, “common law misconduct in office,” could result in a 10-year sentence, Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote, citing case law. Furthermore, allegations that he used campaign donations for personal use could be considered a “crime of moral turpitude,” Cook wrote. While state law also requires immediate suspension for such a crime.

Cook’s opinion also concluded the indictments immediately disqualified Harrell as the chamber’s presiding officer, so Lucas had to suspend Harrell.

In a follow-up letter to Harrell, Lucas called that a moot issue.

Lucas, second-in-command since 2010, is among at least four House members seeking to be elected speaker during the chamber’s organizational session after the November election. That decision, voted on by the entire House, will determine who will be speaker through 2016.

On Nov. 4, Harrell faces a Democrat and a third-party candidate at the polls in a solidly Republican district. He would not be the first House member to be re-elected while under indictment. But it’s highly unlikely his colleagues would re-elect him their leader, even if the case quickly wraps up in his favor.

House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said that’s an impossible scenario anyway.

“Unless you’re pleading guilty, nothing is wrapped up quickly,” he said, adding that someone who pleads guilty couldn’t win support for the job.

Others seeking to be speaker are Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham of Cayce, Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston, and Ways and Means Chairman Brian White of Anderson. Both Bingham and Merrill are previous House majority leaders.

Delleney, a 24-year veteran of the House, characterized the race as “Lucas’ to lose.”

“He’s been a good speaker pro tem. He has command of the chamber and lets everybody speak,” said Delleney, who sits beside Lucas in the chamber. “Everybody respects him.”

House speaker is one the state’s most powerful positions. Beyond controlling debate on the chamber floor, the speaker’s authority includes doling out House members’ committee assignments, overseeing the House budget and hiring every House employee, as well as making appointments to various agency boards.

Republicans have controlled the House for 20 years. But Democrats, in the minority 46-78, can affect who becomes speaker by collectively supporting a candidate. Who wins Democrats’ support could be decided by who commits to reforming the office’s powers.

“We need to not be talking about any candidate for speaker. We need to talk about lessons learned from this,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.

Harrell’s case has been ongoing since Attorney General Alan Wilson accepted an ethics complaint against Harrell in February 2013 and forwarded it to the State Law Enforcement Division for investigation. Wilson announced in January that he sent the case to the state grand jury. Harrell then asked the court to remove Wilson, alleging the investigation was politically driven.

Wilson ended up voluntarily stepping aside this summer and transferring the case to David Pascoe, the Democratic chief prosecutor for Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties. That quietly occurred as the state grand jury’s term expired June 30 without indictment or public notice. Harrell announced both changes to his case last month, before he presided over a special, one-day House session. Wednesday’s indictments were handed down by a Richland County grand jury.

“It’s been difficult for the House as a whole to deal with,” Lucas said of the two years of uncertainty. “There now appears to be some resolution.”

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