Think tank reporter in South Carolina still filling the gaps in accountability coverage

There’s been plenty of news to cover in South Carolina lately, from a mass murder at a black church in Charleston to the Confederate flag’s removal from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. But when it comes to sustained coverage of the state’s biggest political story before the killings and the flag—a powerful politician’s guilty plea on ethics charges and fundamental problems the case against him exposed in the state’s institutions—accountability reporting has been coming from a nontraditional place. And that’s a phenomenon in South Carolina’s media ecosystem that, depending on how you look at it, could be viewed as good (at least there’s coverage regardless of where it comes from) or bad (a sign of a diminished state press corps).

First, some background on the story itself: In October, the state’s most powerful politician, then-Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston, pleaded guilty to illegally using campaign funds. He was kicked out of office, and as part of his plea deal he agreed to cooperate fully with further investigations, including potentially testifying against any ex-colleagues at future trials as the state police and feds continued to probe public corruption at the Statehouse.

The case against Harrell exposed some serious problems in state government, and, as I wrote for the Center for Public Integrity at the time, raised “fundamental concerns about South Carolina’s legislatively dominated government structure, the efficacy of self-policing lawmakers and the integrity of the state’s institutions, such as they are, from the General Assembly to the courts.”

Bottom line: The Harrell saga was a big deal, and it set an expectation for further revelations about other potential corruption in state government. But in the ensuing months after the former House Speaker disappeared from political life, followups seemed to largely fade from mainstream news coverage.

One reporter who has kept on top of the post-plea Harrell—and whether any new revelations might come from his cooperation with authorities—is Rick Brundrett. He writes for The Nerve, an investigative journalism newsroom based out of a libertarian think tank called the South Carolina Policy Council. And he’s been breaking some important news on this front. In May 2014, I’d profiled him for CJR because of his unusual position covering the then-Speaker. It was his think tank boss who had filed a formal complaint that launched Harrell’s legal troubles.

More than a year later, Brundrett is still filling the gaps in accountability reporting in South Carolina, focusing on the ex-Speaker, and how issues related to his probation fit into the broader issue of ethics reform in South Carolina. In June, he tried to find out whether any new charges might come from anything Harrell told investigators, and later he broke the news that Harrell had used campaign funds to pay the first installment of his restitution. Apparently that was news even to the agency in charge of monitoring their parolee. Brundrett’s reporting prompted a new investigation into the ex-Speaker’s campaign spending.

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The small Lancaster News reprinted Brundrett’s piece as a guest column, and The State‘s Cindi Scoppe, who runs the paper’s op-ed page, gave it a signal boost in a column this month titled, “He’s baack! Bobby Harrell and the inactive ethics cops,” that riffed on Brundrett’s work.

But as far as I can tell, other South Carolina journalists haven’t been as interested.

On Monday, Brundrett published a new piece, “Solicitor: Harrell Can’t Use Campaign Funds for Restitution,” which began:

A payment by ex-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, after he pleaded guilty in October to misspending campaign funds, from his campaign account to the state probation agency will not be credited toward his court-ordered restitution, the special prosecutor overseeing the case told The Nerve on Friday.

Last year, because of the Harrell mess, ethics reform was on top of the political agenda for the legislative session. As Scoppe wrote last month:

One of the things that legislators promised they were going to do this year was clearly prohibit elected officials from using campaign funds (i.e., money given to them by special interests that want their support of legislation) to pay their attorneys and their penalties when they violate the law. That reform died—along with requirements that lawmakers tell the public who’s paying their salaries and that special interests tell us when they’re spending money to influence our votes —because a slight majority of senators refused to allow a quasi-independent agency to investigate legislators’ compliance with the law.

I asked Brundrett what he thought his latest revelation meant in terms of South Carolina and a debate about ethics issues that had so consumed the state, but has since seemed to fade.

“I think this story just raises a very important question: Is there any will left in this state to root out corruption in the Statehouse?” he said. “I think that’s the biggest question coming out of this.”

He continued:

“There has been nobody else indicted at either the state or federal level and we’re getting close to a year since Bobby was indicted. And the whole point of the plea agreement is that [the expectation was] heads were going to roll. None of that. So maybe it was unrealistic expectations, but I think from a journalistic standpoint it’s a legitimate question to ask still for anybody covering the Statehouse.”

Obviously there’s a lot going on in the Palmetto State these days, but that these two journalists—one reporting from a think tank, the other from the op-ed page—are the only ones still advancing what was once the biggest story around is an indication that while accountability coverage is alive in South Carolina, it’s coming from a much different place than it used to.

UPDATE: About 10 hours after this piece was published, a reporter from Harrell’s hometown newspaper, the Charleston Post and Courier, reached out to the special prosecutor tasked with investigating Harrell and produced a short piece headlined, “Mix-up cited in crediting Bobby Harrell’s payment toward restitution in ethics case.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.