That have been published reports that South Carolina House of Representatives Speaker Bobby Harrell is under investigation. Allegations are that the Speaker used campaign funds for personal gain, among a few other things, such as abuse of his position as Speaker.
Two political groups in South Carolina are making the most noise about Speaker Harrell. One is the conservative group the South Carolina Policy Council. The other is South Carolina Common Cause. Harrell’s people have been quick to label the allegations as just politics. However, Attorney General Alan Wilson saw fit to have the State Law Enforcement Division investigate the allegations.
What has happened since then is interesting. The Attorney General found his campaign under scrutiny for missing campaign donations in filed reports. As one old political hand told VUI, “You do not piss off the King.”
House members, of both parties, are either silent or supportive of Harrell. There is a reason. Speaker Bobby Harrell, innocent or guilty of the allegations, is simply the most powerful elected official in South Carolina and he welds his power with an iron fist.
Here is how. Up until the resignation of then Lt. Governor Ken Ard, President Pro Tempore of the State Senate Glenn McConnell was considered the most powerful man in Columbia. With McConnell’s position and his knowledge of Senate rules and even House Rules and how to manipulate them, he was considered the one man in Columbia any issue had to be on its side. When Ard resigned, McConnell shocked some folks, including VUI, by simply doing the right thing, and accepting, with a sense of duty, his elevation to the defanged office of Lt. Governor. Since then, the power has been with Harrell.
There are several reasons. Harrell rules the House with an iron fist. If a member gets out of his good graces, the Speaker will boot them from a committee or buttonhole a pet bill of theirs. Governor Nikki Haley learned it first hand when Harrell booted her from a committee in the House for getting out of step with him when she was a member of the House. The vast powers of the Speaker inside the House even make hardened Democrats tread carefully around him for fear they will lose whatever little he gives them. Further, though President Pro Tempore John Courson is an able man in the State Senate, Courson and his people, and even the Governor and her people, simply lack the information, the savvy and the downright hardball tactics the Speaker and his people have when comes to not only the House but every aspect of state government.
Further, the Speaker is politically unbeatable for his seat in the House. With the money in his war chest, his family name in the low country, and his people, there is simply no way the man could lose a re-election to the House.
Then there is the investigation itself. While Wilson did the right thing in calling for SLED to check into things, there is South Carolina law. As SC Policy Council President Ashley Landess pointed out in sworn testimony, the House investigates itself. The Speaker, with his powers, would it seems, oversee the investigation into his own alleged misbehavior. There is certainly no indication that the Speaker will recuse himself or his influence at this time. Thus, South Carolina could find itself at a major struggle of powers. What if SLED says there is wrong doing and the House says there is not?
Such a situation is very possible. The system creates it. The Speaker could just remove from the House Ethics Committee any member who he thought might find against him. More subtly, it could be implied. The rules of the House make the Speaker the Speaker until 2014. But the members of any committee, including the Ethics Committee, have no set terms. So, again, the power is with the Speaker. And, the table is set for an incredible political power battle in Columbia.
But, it could be avoided. One advantage to being the King is that you can be gracious. Everyone in Columbia knows that while Fox News and others drone on about Governor Haley, the real power lies with Speaker Harrell. The Speaker could solidify that power by simply taking a different approach. Instead of blasting people who question his ethics, he should thank them for their concern. He should open the books, so to speak, show there is no wrong doing and pay out no retributions. It is something a Sol Blatt would do, and well, they did name the House office building after him.
But, even the strongest of Kings fall when they get bitter and worry about petty things. Indeed, VUI predicts that a huge political struggle over all this will get federal attention, and who knows what happens after that. Whatever happens, with all the powers involved you can bet a lot of pols in Columbia, Democrat and Republican, are going to keep their heads low and their powder dry as all this unfolds.