THE ISSUE: Bobby Harrell’s use of campaign funds
OUR VIEW: Speaker can fend off critics of pay raises, but turning over receipts only way to answer larger questions
So much debate centers around the discord between the governor and Legislature over state employees and their raises and health insurance premiums that reports about raises for some far above the norm got comparatively little public notice.
The conservative South Carolina Policy Council broke the story via its investigative reporter Rick Brundrett and thenerve.org: 32 House staffers earning at least $50,000 annually received raises ranging from 5 to 55 percent.
Including the House’s top-paid administrator, Charles Reid, whose annual salary increased 10 percent to $159,414, 19 staffers received raises of 10 percent or more over the previous fiscal year, according to The Nerve’s review of a state salary database and House records obtained earlier under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell’s spokesman, Greg Foster, was in that group; his salary jumped 22 percent to $85,000.
And the 3 percent across-the-board raise for state employees approved by lawmakers this past session also applies to these employees.
The larger raises were not approved through the legislative process.
Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, said the raises likely were approved by Harrell, who, according to Smith, has traditionally controlled their pay.
“Given the circumstances, I am concerned about the raises,” Smith, who chairs the House Operations and Management Committee, told The Nerve. “I’m not privy to the justification as to why they were warranted.”
With Smith saying his committee has no control over pay raises for higher-paid House staffers, the legitimate question is, “why not?” And the same appears to apply in the state Senate.
Harrell should be on the hot seat for the increases, though it now appears he has larger issues to address.
The Post and Courier found that Harrell has reimbursed himself more than $325,000 from his campaign funds since 2008 but has produced no receipts or itemized invoices accounting for the spending as required by state law.
State politicians must maintain such documentation for four years to prove they are using campaign money for political rather than personal spending. Harrell told the newspaper that all his expenses are legitimate. But the State Ethics Commission said that without the required documentation, it is impossible to confirm that Harrell spent the money properly.
Many of the reimbursements cover the speaker’s costs for using his private plane for “official legislative trips and politically related travel,” Harrell’s office said in an emailed response to the Charleston newspaper’s questions. The office said flying the four-seat, single-engine Cirrus SR22 costs “as much as $800 or $900” a leg. Harrell’s office did not respond to written questions asking how it arrived at those figures. The speaker pilots the plane himself.
In addition to attending campaign events and fundraisers for other House members, Harrell said in a statement that he uses the funds for travel related to his legislative duties.
Along with requiring that expenditures be itemized on state filings, South Carolina law says politicians using campaign funds must “maintain and preserve all receipted bills and accounts ... for four years.” The newspaper asked to review all such documents related to Harrell’s political travel and other reimbursed expenses. Harrell did not respond to multiple requests from the newspaper over the past month to provide those invoices or any other documents showing how the nearly $326,000 was spent.
“While South Carolina is known for having a rough and tough political history, I never thought I’d be attacked for saving taxpayers money by using campaign funds instead of state funds to pay for official Legislative expenses,” Harrell said in his statement.
While the pay raises given by Harrell are legitimate fodder for political attacks that he may never have to address anyway, a newspaper reporting on why he has not filed the legally required documentation for use of campaign funds raises questions for which answers are due. The speaker should be a model for following the reporting regulations.
If it is as Republican Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell says in “assuming he’s got every receipt,” Harrell can put the matter to rest quickly.