On Thursday, South Carolina’s former House Speaker, Bobby Harrell, completed his journey from being one of the state’s most powerful politicians to being a government rat.*
Harrell, a Republican who had already relinquished the Speaker’s role under pressure, pleaded guilty in a state court to six counts of misusing campaign funds. He avoided prison by agreeing to cooperate fully with further investigations, including potentially testifying against his ex-colleagues at future trials as state and federal authorities continue to probe public corruption at the Statehouse.
Harrell’s fall was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which was the herculean lengths he’d gone to try and halt it. Those attempts included pushing legislation to limit the powers of the state attorney general, the fellow Republican Alan Wilson, who was investigating him, and trying to get Wilson thrown off the case in a secret court hearing. A high-stakes power struggle between two of South Carolina’s most prominent political figures gripped the state for the better part of a year.
This is consequential stuff for the efforts to reform the ethically troubled state. Indeed, “this kind of thing doesn’t happen every century in South Carolina,” Brad Warthen, the former editorial page editor of The State, mused on his blog the day Harrell went down.
But the news is also important in another way: It is a case study in why local accountability reporting matters. It took the reporting of Renee Dudley, a young, aggressive reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier, to break the news of the longtime politician’s wrongdoing and force the issue to the forefront of public debate.
Harrell had been in the House since 1993, and had been Speaker since 2005. Before Dudley took him on, no other reporter had so thoroughly researched and scrutinized his behavior in office, not at papers around the state capitol nor in his home district of Charleston.
But Dudley, a Boston native, had started to make a name for herself with investigative features after joining The Post and Courier in 2010 to cover health stories. As a reporter covering politics at the capital for the Columbia, SC-based alt-weekly Free Times, I first noticed her work when she dropped a September 2011 story on Gov. Nikki Haley’s trip to Europe.
By the time I read her pieces on Harrell the next year, I was jealous. In the spring of 2012, Dudley, then 26, penned her first big report on Bobby’s world. The story was an investigative report about a big-money political action committee linked to the Speaker, and how he used it to consolidate and wield power in the House. Her piece raised questions about conflicts of interest, including whether it was proper for one lawmaker to accept $123,000 in payment to his communications firm from “the Speaker’s PAC.”
The bombshell that eventually put the Speaker in legal crosshairs, and later led to his guilty plea, came that September. Its title: “Harrell offers no details on self-reimbursement of $325,000 from campaign funds.”
The deeply researched piece examined years of campaign finance data and federal flight logs to demonstrate how Harrell had reimbursed himself more than $300,000 from his campaign account, with much of it going to operate a private airplane he piloted between the Statehouse in Columbia and his home on the coast.
Then she kept reporting on the fallout. In a follow-up the next day, you could tell she wasn’t playing the clubby games of a journalist who craves or needs access:
On Friday, after posing the same question multiple times, the newspaper sent the following email to Harrell’s office: “State yes or no whether the Speaker at this time has the receipts and itemized documents required under state law to justify his reimbursements.”
He refused to say whether such invoices or itemizations exist.
But in a statement Monday, [Harrell spokesman Greg] Foster said: “A point the Post & Courier reporter either failed to grasp or failed to accurately report, as (sic) that Speaker Harrell does in fact keep detailed itemized records of all campaign expenditures and receipts should the Ethics Committee ever wish to review and confirm any expense.”
Foster again refused to provide the receipts and other documents.
Soon, activist groups relying on Dudley’s reporting were filing complaints and pushing law enforcement to investigate Harrell. Not long after, she left The Post and Courier for Bloomberg News. Her tenure in South Carolina was short. But in a state where mainstream media coverage sometimes reflects the local reputation for congeniality, her work was like a punch in the face. It shocked some people who weren’t used to it, and that’s why it mattered.
Fast forward two years from her reporting—and through an incredibly tortured legal process that went all the way to the state Supreme Court—Harrell is now an ex-public official on probation and assisting state law enforcement and the FBI as a government witness.
Dudley is now back in Boston, covering Walmart for Bloomberg (you may have read about one of her “delicious” scoops there). Reached on Friday, she declined to comment about her feelings on her work in South Carolina and where it eventually led. I’d emailed her the day Harrell entered his guilty plea. It was also her birthday.
* Correction: This sentence originally misstated the day on which Harrell pleaded guilty.