CHARLESTON, S.C. — Three years after being forced from office, former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is free.
Gone are the probation requirements to cooperate with prosecutors and the threatened jail time if he failed to comply. He can even run for office again.
“Life is very good now,” the 61-year-old Charleston Republican recently told The Post and Courier. “The last five years have been unbelievably tough on my family. It’s an incredible relief that period of time has passed and all that’s behind us.”
After pausing, he stressed, “And it is behind us.”
Harrell’s guilty plea three years ago started a Statehouse corruption investigation that’s veered outside his circle. The powerful House leader was considered a prized catch, the ultimate insider, but he said he was never asked to testify before the state grand jury and has not been requested to appear at any upcoming trials. He hasn’t received as much as a phone call from prosecutors in more than a year.
He believes he might have avoided a conviction if he’d kept meticulous log books for his private plane, costing him his position as arguably the state’s most powerful politician.
Life after his guilty plea also required keeping his insurance business afloat when State Farm pulled out, but he said supporters who continued to drop by, call and email helped his family through the ordeal.
“You find out who your real friends are when you go through something like this, and I’ve learned I have a lot of real friends,” he said in his first media interview since 2014.
Since Harrell pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor ethics violations involving his flights, the expanded probe has zeroed in on Republican powerbroker Richard Quinn, a political foe.
The veteran consultant was indicted on allegations he conspired with legislators to win contracts and benefit business clients that included the state’s largest firms and government agencies. Four current and former GOP legislators tied to Quinn — including his son, former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn — also are facing conspiracy and other charges, all misdemeanors. All five say the allegations are false.
Harrell declined to weigh in on the disintegration of the Quinn consulting empire, saying he wants “to let the justice system run its course with them and see where it goes.”
But he did take issue with lumping their cases together.
“I think the larger probe has almost nothing to do with what we went through,” Harrell said at his insurance office in West Ashley.
Harrell, a licensed pilot, pleaded guilty to misusing campaign donations to fund flights on his single-engine plane, including a 2009 visit to Florida for a high school baseball tournament he explained to investigators as a “see and be seen” trip with constituents.
“It’s all about ethics violations related solely to use of the airplane. And I think that differs dramatically from getting millions of dollars in contracts, if someone’s guilty of that,” he said. “I think investigating me caused investigators to begin looking at a lot of other things.”
The state investigation into Harrell began in February 2013, when state Attorney General Alan Wilson forwarded an ethics complaint against the speaker to the State Law Enforcement Division. Wilson, a longtime Quinn client, handed the case to 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe in summer 2014 — citing, but not identifying, a conflict. A grand jury indicted Harrell a few months later, prompting the speaker since 2005 to suspend himself.
As part of his guilty plea, Harrell was ordered to pay a $30,000 fine — the maximum on the charges, empty his campaign account of its remaining $3,500 and pay $93,000 to the state’s general fund, which covered the amount he reimbursed himself for plane flights between 2009 and 2013. A spokesman for the state’s probation agency confirmed that Harrell has paid all of his court-ordered restitution and probation fees before his case was closed.
Harrell also was required to cooperate with all continued state and federal investigations, though he said they haven’t sought much else from him.
Since his plea, he’s had just one in-person interview and one phone call with SLED agents, with the last contact being more than a year and a half ago. He hasn’t spoken to anyone on the federal level in more than three years, he said.
Though no longer compelled to help, Harrell said he’d still answer investigators’ questions if asked. But he doesn’t expect their call.
“They asked me a lot of questions early on, and I answered them,” he said. “If they want to talk to me, I’ll talk to them at any time, but they just haven’t. I think they got the information from me they wanted and probably sent them off into other directions, and they went off in those directions.”
While there are no more restrictions on what he can say, Harrell said, he declined to comment further.
It appears prosecutors didn’t need Harrell to get the six indictments since his plea.
John Crangle, a longtime South Carolina government watchdog, said that doesn’t surprise him.
“I don’t think Harrell had anything to do with (the Quinns),” said Crangle, former director of Common Cause. “I think he’s done what Pascoe wanted him to do. You can’t get water out of a stone, if he has no more information.”
Pascoe, the special prosecutor leading the state investigation, did not respond to messages last week seeking comment.
Crangle — whose insistence helped persuade Wilson to take Harrell’s case directly rather than let the speaker’s colleagues on the House Ethics Committee handle the complaint — said the former speaker’s prosecution was important to the probe.
The expenses Harrell reported on his public campaign disclosures made him the “most obvious target,” he said, allowing prosecutors to dig into payments and collections by other legislators that otherwise would’ve remained hidden.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb,” Crangle said. “Harrell was the important first one, the start of the unraveling process.”
Harrell’s case was also important because it resulted in Wilson disqualifying himself, he said, which “opened the door to an investigation which never would’ve happened otherwise.”
It appears Wilson’s previously uncited conflict was the Quinns. The SLED report on Harrell also named the Quinns and former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill.
Merrill, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty in September to misdemeanor misconduct in office. Indicted last December, he was the first person since Harrell charged in the probe. Merrill, who owned his own public relations and political consulting firm, received one year of probation after admitting he didn’t report income from clients and should’ve recused himself from a vote. He too agreed to cooperate with continued investigations after resigning from office.
Harrell still believes he was pursued for political reasons. Asked if he would do anything differently, he said he wishes he’d kept a “neater log book.”
“Seriously,” he said. “I had an incredibly sloppy pilot’s log book, and I have paid dearly for that. I didn’t think then, and I don’t think now, that it warranted what has transpired over these last few years, but it is what it is.”
Prosecutors accused Harrell of changing entries in his logbook, creating false flights and “misinforming” officers. But Harrell still contends it was legitimate for his campaign to cover flights that allowed him to get to the Statehouse and meetings faster, and to attend more events without using a state plane.
Harrell has had to rebuild his business from near-scratch. State Farm dropped him following his guilty plea, ending a decades-long affiliation that began with his father. But business is doing so well now, he said, he’s looking to own a plane again, two years after selling the one that led to his ouster.
While he’s no longer barred from seeking office, he said he has no plans to run for the seat he’d held for 22 years.
Harrell said he mostly misses being in a position to help out his hometown. He counts Boeing’s move to North Charleston, following an incentive deal approved by the Legislature that he helped craft, as among his proudest accomplishments. But he’s enjoying spending time with his family, which includes doting on his 2-year-old granddaughter.
“I guess you never say never, but things are going pretty well, from family to business to everything,” he said. “I kinda like what I’m doing right now.”