COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Former Speaker Bobby Harrell has left the South Carolina Statehouse in disgrace, quitting the seat he held for more than 20 years as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time for misdemeanor campaign finance violations.
But that deal also requires the 58-year-old Republican to cooperate with ongoing state and federal investigations, a caveat some say may have remaining legislators worried they could be next to feel the heat.
Harrell pleaded guilty Thursday to six campaign finance violations, all of which were misdemeanors. Prosecutors said Harrell improperly used campaign money to pay for flights on his private plane. The Charleston Republican, who has consistently said a voluminous investigative report would clear him, now says he disagreed with the charges but pleaded guilty because he and his family couldn't handle fighting any longer.
"I have agreed to this today to end what has been a two year nightmare. This has been incredibly hard on my family and me, and it is time for it to end," Harrell said in a statement, also saying he had a "fundamental disagreement" with authorities over the proper uses of campaign funds.
It wasn't immediately clear what would happen with Harrell's legislative seat, for which he had been seeking another term this year. State election officials said they haven't heard from Republicans, while GOP state chairman Matt Moore said the party was still exploring its options.
And although Harrell agreed to cooperate with state and federal authorities in an ongoing investigation, the details have not been revealed. The four charges that remain against Harrell — including a misconduct count that could carry a possible 10-year sentence — are being held in abeyance during his probation but, according to his plea deal, could be reinstated at any time if authorities are dissatisfied with his level of cooperation.
After Harrell's court appearance Thursday, lawmakers were quick to weigh in via statements to media. Acting House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who took over after Harrell's departure from leadership, called the day "disappointing" and a test of citizens' faith in their legislators, saying he hoped the chamber could move forward.
But with the specter of the ongoing probe, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon says that may be hard to do.
"The total fallout for next session will depend on who all is involved," Huffmon said. "Everybody calls their campaign manager and says, "Okay, I know I didn't do anything illegal. Did you make sure you filed every receipt correctly?"
The potential for more indictments harkens memories of Lost Trust, the FBI's 1990 operation that resulted in 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists. John Crangle of Common Cause, who worked to bring allegations to prosecutors' attention, said he anticipated more than a dozen other lawmakers could now end up facing charges because of nefarious deals about which Harrell might know.
"Harrell absolutely has to cooperate," he said after Thursday's hearing. "He didn't do all this stuff by himself."
Prosecutor David Pascoe, who handled Harrell's case, declined to comment on any ongoing investigation. Regardless of what may come within the ensuing three years during which Harrell must cooperate and sit out of politics, Huffmon said it's too early to say that his political career is entirely over.
"In probably 49 other states, this absolutely would be the death knell of a career," he said. "But, like the sign on my door says, 'This is South Carolina. That ain't how we do things down here.'"
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.