The explanations by S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell for why he reimbursed himself hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account are distressingly vague. The problem is, state ethics laws don’t require anything more specific.
Harrell has come under fire recently after questions arose about the lack of specificity on his campaign finance forms about how he paid himself from his campaign account. Since the summer of 2008, Harrell has reimbursed himself about $280,000, according to quarterly spending reports filed with the state.
But those reports provide little to nothing in the way of details. Reasons listed for expenses included “legislative travel,” “conference fees” and one listed merely as “staff Christmas.”
Harrell later explained that he had reimbursed himself from his campaign war chest for Christmas gifts he bought for his staff.
When pressed for documentation, Harrell showed the Associated Press documents that backed up many of his withdrawals. The papers included American Express bills, phone bills, hotel invoices and pay stubs.
But Harrell refused to allow copies to be made of the documents so that they could be more carefully scrutinized, saying they contained personal information. He also noted that they were not public documents under state law.
Most of Harrell’s withdrawals involved use of his private plane for flights to Columbia and to legislative events across the state. Harrell, a licensed commercial pilot, said he determined what charter companies charge to fly his same single-engine aircraft on the same trip and then reimburses himself less than that.
But the only records Harrell offered up were spreadsheets for the trips. He said he saves taxpayers money by flying his own plane instead of the state’s plane, but if he had used the state plane he would have been required to provide more detailed flight plans.
All of these reimbursements might have been legitimate. Unfortunately, state law offers no solid guidelines regarding which expenses are allowed and which might not be.
And the ethics policy governing what public officials are required to disclose is both inexact and largely toothless.
Officials with the watchdog group Common Cause plan to file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee asking the panel to waive its jurisdiction in investigating Harrell’s expenses and send the case directly to the attorney general. However, there is no guarantee the committee will investigate Harrell much less send the case to the attorney general.
Whatever happens, though, this is one more indication that ethics reform should be a top priority when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Both the House and Senate are working on plans to close ethics loopholes, and we hope those efforts aren’t stalled by self-interested lawmakers.
South Carolinians deserve to know how much their elected representatives are being paid and who’s paying them. Mandatory disclosure is the only solution.
From The Herald