By Robert Kittle
The South Carolina Policy Council, a think tank that espouses smaller government, is questioning whether SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell used his position for personal gain by using his influence to help a business he owns.
The questions are about Palmetto State Pharmaceuticals, of which Harrell is president. The company repackages bulk generic medicine so doctors can sell it to their patients, bypassing a trip to the pharmacy. In seeking approval for the business, Harrell was dealing with the state Pharmacy Board.
Ashley Landess, president of the SC Policy Council, says the emails make it look like Harrell used his office to benefit his business. "A letter in which he asks for urgent attention to a permit, and that letter is sent on his Speaker's letterhead. Discussions among Pharmacy Board members who feel like he was pressuring them," she says.
She provided copies of the emails to the news media. One of the emails, between staff members of the Pharmacy Board, says, "Please review the situation below. Bobby Harrell is involved."
Another email says, "The President of this company is Bobby Harrell (Speaker of the S.C. State House)."
Landess also provided a copy of the letter from Harrell to the Pharmacy Board, on letterhead that says "Office of the Speaker, South Carolina House of Representatives." The handwritten note says, "We would appreciate your urgent attention to this request." It's signed "Bobby Harrell", but Harrell says it's not his signature. An assistant in his business office, not the Speaker's office, wrote and signed the note, he says.
He says he asked her to include a handwritten note and she mistakenly grabbed a piece of paper with the Speaker's letterhead. "I'd just as soon they not have used the letterhead that has "Speaker" on it. But it's not like the folks at the agency didn't know who I was when the application came in anyway. I mean, I'd already had a conversation with them and asked them not to treat me any differently than they treat anybody else," he says.
He says he has not used his position to help his company, and was simply talking to a state agency like any other business owner would.
One of the emails does say that Harrell was "adamant in his conversation that he wanted his enterprise to be treated the same as any other operation and not any exceptions be made because of who he was." But the email also says an exception was already made because Harrell had insisted on a telephone conference with him, when the agency staff would usually deal with a pharmacist consultant, not the owner of the business.
Harrell says it's a no-win situation because the state has part-time lawmakers who have other jobs or businesses. "Either we have to have a full-time legislature, which I certainly would not advocate, or we're going to have business people in the legislature who are having to deal with agencies from time to time. I mean, it's got to be one way or the other," he says.
Landess says the Policy Council is bringing this up to bring attention to the need for ethics reforms. "The Speaker in South Carolina has more power really than almost any politician in the state, and yet the Speaker is not elected statewide," she says. The Speaker of the House is a state representative elected from one of the 124 state House districts. Members of the House then elect one member to serve as Speaker.