In February 2013, Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell became the subject of an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division. The allegations involved public corruption and abuse of power. In January of this year, the case was referred to a grand jury, which finally indicted Harrell last week.
So it's been going on a while, right?
During all that time, the S.C. Policy Council, the organization that originally brought the allegations to Attorney General Alan Wilson and for which I work, published several reports and articles detailing the improper concentration of power in the hands of the House speaker. Even before the SLED investigation, Policy Council President Ashley Landess and others repeatedly and openly warned state legislation that the speaker of the House wielded too much unaccountable power over too many areas of state government.
And what did members of the S.C. House of Representatives have to say about all this? Nothing, that's what.
The silence has been a continual source of amusement for me and a few like-minded Statehouse observers. Not even Rep. Todd Rutherford, the ordinarily outspoken minority leader in the House, had said anything about Harrell except to say he had no comment.
And their silence had little to do with the absence of an indictment. Back when Gov. Mark Sanford authored the weirdest political scandal in modern American history, House members had no trouble demanding the governor's resignation, though there was no indictment or even the serious possibility of criminal charges. Even then-Speaker of the House Harrell penned his own plea for the governor to step down. "This is a critical time for South Carolina to have strong and effective leadership for our people," Harrell wrote. "Unfortunately, the recent controversies and negative publicity surrounding your personal life and administration make it clear that you are not in a position to lead us in that direction. Thus for the benefit of the people of South Carolina, I respectfully request that you resign as governor and allow our state to close this chapter and begin anew." A nice touch of irony there, eh.
How curious, then, that no one in the S.C. House would utter a squeak about the fact that the speaker was under investigation by a grand jury.
Now that Harrell has been suspended from his post as the leader of the House, however, his fellow representatives are suddenly deeply concerned that the House speaker — whoever he happens to be — possesses too much power. "There's too much power in one person and we need to have some reform," says Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Summerville). Nice of her to notice!
In the same article — about a bipartisan move to decrease the speaker's power — Rep. Rick Quinn (R-Lexington) says, "This is not really about Bobby Harrell. I had been looking at this before Bobby had issues with the indictments."
No doubt Rep. Quinn had been, as he says, "looking at" the problem long before Harrell's "issues." He just wasn't saying anything about it.
And then there's Rep. James Smith (D-Lexington). "Our House is really unlike any other legislative body in the country," says Smith. "Not just some of the power, but all of the power is held by the Office of the Speaker, one office. It's not just administrative power, but it's employment, agendas, and appointments."
I agree, and I'm glad that after an 18-month investigation of Speaker Harrell, James Smith agrees too.
The Harrell indictment gave Rep. Tommy Stringer (R-Greenville) a similar burst of courage and insight. "For the good of South Carolina, Rep. Harrell should step down as speaker forthwith," he said on his website hours after the indictment was made public. And then this: "The organizational structure of the S.C. House cries out for comprehensive reform. We have a structure that concentrates power in the hands of a very few representatives while the talents of other members are never used. This structure does not give all South Carolinians true representation in the 'Peoples' House,' but rather creates an oligarchy of tyranny."
That word "tyranny" — certainly other observers were using it months ago. I wish Rep. Stringer had been willing to use it back then. But better late than never.
As for Harrell's House caucus, it doesn't look like many of them were too eager to talk openly about the speaker's power as recently as a month ago. At a closed-door caucus meeting in Myrtle Beach, Harrell thanked members for their "unbelievable support, encouragement, prayers." He went on: "Those of you who have called me and texted me and emailed me and grabbed me when you saw me and said, 'I'm for you; we know you're a good guy; we know you didn't do anything' ... it means more to me than I can tell."
Well, I'm glad House members have suddenly found their courage. It was right outside the speaker's office door the whole time.
Barton Swaim is the communications director for the S.C. Policy Council and a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal.