On October 23, 2014, House Speaker Bobby Harrell pled guilty to six counts of ethics act violations stemming from his personal use of campaign funds. The stunning, unannounced development came just a month and a half after his indictment on numerous charges as described in our earlier report.
The Speaker and the state entered a negotiated plea agreement which included agreement on his sentence, giving the judge no power to override the deal. At most guilty pleas, the state offers a recommended sentence, but the judge can reject it and impose any sentence he deems fit.
Harrell’s sentence allows him to avoid prison. He must serve three years’ probation, pay a $30,000 fine, forfeit any remaining campaign funds to the State, and reimburse the State almost $94,000. If he violates any of these terms, he could face up to six years in prison.
As a part of the agreement, he must immediately resign from the House. He is barred from seeking office until his punishment is done—at least three years.
Closure on this case did not fully part the clouds of suspicion over the General Assembly. Instead, it may have gathered them. An unexpected part of the agreement requires Harrell to cooperate with both state and federal authorities in investigating undisclosed unlawful acts involving the General Assembly. That cooperation specifically includes testifying at any trials. In exchange for his agreement to become a government informant, Harrell got immunity.
As I’ve said before, we can have confidence this was the right result, as both sides thoroughly investigated the case and Harrell had the benefit of excellent defense lawyers. Comments by Harrell’s defense lawyer Bart Daniel shed light on why the State and Harrell reached what some might call an unusual deal in the negotiated sentence: Daniel stated Harrell hired a forensic accountant to review his records. They discovered Harrell claimed some things as legislative expenses that weren’t, but he also claimed some expenses as personal that were legislative. This means the trial of this case would have been extremely complex and highly expensive for both sides.
When addressing the Court before sentencing, Harrell also revealed an important reason he agreed to it, noting the toll these allegations took on his family over the last two years and their need for closure. Later, he described the two-year investigation as a “nightmare.” While the agreement is favorable to Harrell from the standpoint of keeping him out of prison, the harshest punishment may be the one his career and reputation suffers: he has lost a coveted, lofty position of power within South Carolina politics, is forever labeled a convict, and must now submit to the will of state and federal authorities to possibly turn on his former colleagues.
It seems more trouble for our state government may loom on the horizon. Stay tuned.