Did a South Carolina Legislator Misspend Campaign Cash?

South Carolina’s capital of Columbia is abuzz with political gossip following a report that the House Speaker has failed to properly report hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending. Last week, the Post and Courier of Charleston reported that Republican Bobby Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign account since 2008, but has neglected to submit receipts or itemized reports for all the spending, as required by state law.

The failure appears to put Harrell out of compliance with ethics rules, but it’s unclear who exactly will be trying to answer that question. Normally, oversight authority rests with a six-member legislative committee. But, as the Post and Courier points out, Harrell has made campaign contributions to five of those legislators through a PAC he is affiliated with, leading watchdog groups to question the committee’s independence. The chair of the committee told the Post and Courier he couldn’t “afford” to talk about the allegations.

On Monday, John Crangle of Common Cause South Carolina asked the ethics committee to waive its authority and allow law enforcement to investigate. The attorney general’s office has told Crangle it has limited authority on the matter.

Since the initial report, Harrell has maintained that he is in compliance with all state laws. He said most of the money went toward covering the costs for travel on his private plane, for which he’s the pilot. On three occasions, Harrell paid himself more than $20,000 for travel on a single day.

Harrell claims he’s saved taxpayers money by using the campaign funds, rather than public money set aside for legislators’ travel. The Associated Press reported that Harrell presented credit card and cell phone bills, hotel invoices and other records supporting his claims.

South Carolina earned an overall grade of F on the State Integrity Investigation report card, a nationwide, data-driven effort to rank states by corruption risk. As our state overview page put it, the worst problems in the Palmetto State are, “the manipulative fashions by which political parties are financed; antagonism by politicians toward a transparent government; hostility to the press; the corruptive influence of leadership political action committees; widespread institutional secrecy in disclosing assets, and loopholes in the state’s ethics laws large enough to dock a Confederate submarine.”

Ethics oversight has been a particular problem. After a former lieutenant governor was indicted earlier this year on charges of misspending campaign cash, the ethics commission said it would audit spending reports more closely. The Palmetto State received F grades from the State Integrity Investigation in the specific categories of both ethics enforcement and legislative accountability.

South Carolina is hardly alone. The State Integrity Investigation found that across the country, ethics oversight is often toothless and underfunded. Out of 41 states with oversight bodies, 28 received ranks of D or F.

To read more about the latest report from South Carolina, check out the Post and Courier’s original report.

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