- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Former South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell improperly paid his attorneys last year with campaign money and therefore must hand over $113,475 to the state, the House Ethics Committee ruled Tuesday.

The committee voted unanimously to require the chamber’s former leader to pay the state’s general fund within 30 days. Ordinarily, the committee would require offenders to reimburse their campaign fund, but Harrell had to empty his account as part of his plea deal last fall for misusing campaign donations.

In an email later Tuesday, Harrell said the vote violated his due process rights.

“All of this was done without any notice to me of the meeting and without affording me the opportunity to be heard by the committee,” Harrell wrote, adding he was at the hospital for the birth of his first grandchild and would happily address the matter more after his granddaughter is home.

Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham said no hearing was needed. He said Harrell’s attorneys were told months ago the committee was looking into the payments and declined to provide additional explanation.

Bingham said the payments to Harrell’s attorneys last April and July - totaling $70,475 to one attorney and $43,000 to another - would have been permissible if the Charleston Republican had ultimately been cleared of wrongdoing. But he said a 2013 committee opinion shows why the conviction made that improper.

In the opinion, regarding the 2012 election mess in which hundreds of candidates were tossed off ballots, the committee “narrowly determines” that campaign donations can be used to pay legal expenses. But it cautions against using campaign cash in lawsuits resulting from personal misconduct. Ultimately, the opinion concludes, the facts of each case determine whether a payment is allowed.

“Everything is fact specific. You can use your attorney fees to protect yourself and protect your office and make sure that elections run smoothly,” said Bingham, R-Cayce. “What you can’t do is use attorney fees for personal misconduct.”

The committee did not tack on any fees or fines. Harrell reported the attorney payments on his July and October 2014 campaign disclosure filings. Bingham said Harrell’s attorneys were reminded of the 2013 opinion before the payments were made, but his committee had to await the case’s outcome to review whether they were appropriate.

Harrell, who had been speaker since 2005, pleaded guilty last October to six misdemeanor campaign finance violations, though he continued to disagree with the charges. Prosecutors said he improperly used campaign donations to pay for flights on his private plane.

He was sentenced to three years of probation and had to resign the seat he’d held for more than two decades. He was also ordered to empty his campaign account and pay $93,000 to the general fund, as well as a $30,000 fine - the maximum on the charges.

In July 2012, Gov. Nikki Haley used $50,000 from her campaign account to pay attorneys who defended her against accusations before the House Ethics Committee that she illegally lobbied for two former employers while representing Lexington in the House.

Bingham said that was different because the committee cleared her of the charges. He also noted Haley’s issue was not before his committee.

Bingham was elected House Ethics chairman in December 2012, after the House passed a new rule expanding the committee to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

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