COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Former South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell avoided jail time but lost the seat he has held for more than 20 years after he pleaded guilty Thursday to six campaign finance violations.
Harrell's plea deal dropped misconduct in office charges. The Republican agreed to a six-year prison sentence that will be suspended as long as he completes three years of probation. He was also ordered to turn over about $10,000 from his campaign account to the state and will pay $93,000 to South Carolina's general fund, as well as a $30,000 fine — the maximum on the charges.
Harrell said in a statement that he disagrees with the charges but pleaded guilty because he and his family couldn't handle fighting for up to two more years.
"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, concluding his statement by saying he and his wife will continue to look for ways to help South Carolina.
Harrell also agreed to help in any other investigations into wrongdoing involving the Legislature or other matters. Prosecutor David Pascoe didn't specify what those investigations involve.
Circuit Judge Casey Manning approved the deal.
Harrell, 58, has been in the House since 1993 and speaker since 2005. Prosecutors said he improperly used campaign money to pay for flights on his private plane. Harrell didn't talk to reporters after his sentencing, but said in his statement he disagrees with prosecutors that his flights were not state or campaign business.
Harrell suspended himself from the speaker's office last month, a day after a Richland County grand jury indicted him on nine counts.
As part of his plea deal, Harrell agreed to not seek office for at least three years. He was running for re-election against a Democrat and a third-party candidate, and it wasn't immediately clear what will happen since absentee voting has begun. State election officials said they haven't heard from Republicans, while GOP state chairman Matt Moore said the party was still exploring its options.
One count alleges Harrell reimbursed himself $3,875 for flying his family and friends to Florida in March 2009 in his private plane for a high school baseball tournament. His campaign disclosures labeled that trip "legislative travel."
Prosecutors also said that Harrell paid himself $294,335 from his campaign account between Jan. 1, 2009 and Jan. 10, 2013. About a third of that, or $93,958, went toward his privately owned airplane. Roughly another third, or $96,381, was reported as reimbursements for legislative travel, though some of the expenses were personal and other sources paid for some of the travel.
Defense attorney Bart Daniel said an audit paid for by Harrell did agree with some of the prosecutor's findings. But it also determined Harrell personally paid for thousands of dollars in expenses he could have claimed as campaign-related.
After the hearing, Pascoe said investigators reviewing Harrell's flight logs noticed records had been changed to portray brief, local flights as roundtrip excursions between Charleston and Columbia — trips the prosecutor said Harrell then falsely claimed as related to legislative business, paying himself thousands of dollars from his campaign fund.
The case has been ongoing since early 2013, when Attorney General Alan Wilson accepted an ethics complaint against Harrell from Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council — a libertarian-leaning, pro-limited-government think tank — and sent it to the State Law Enforcement Division for investigation. Wilson sent the case to the state grand jury, and Harrell asked the court to remove Wilson, saying the prosecutor tried to intimidate him during the investigation.
Wilson eventually stepped aside and transferred the case to Pascoe, the Democratic chief prosecutor for Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties.
In a statement, Landess applauded Wilson and others for taking the complaint seriously but said more reforms were necessary.
"We know powerful leaders don't give up easily, but we hope that after today they'll understand that we do not intend to stop until they return to citizens the power to control their own government," she said.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP