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South Carolina house speaker pleads guilty in ethics case, to resign

CHARLESTON S.C. (Reuters) - South Carolina House of Representatives Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty on Thursday to criminal ethics charges and agreed to immediately resign from the legislature.

Harrell, a Republican who became speaker in 2005, pleaded guilty to six counts that included using campaign funds for personal expenses, misconduct in office and false reporting, in a case that has laid low a key figure in the state Republican Party.

Harrell also agreed to cooperate with investigators going forward and to submit to polygraph tests, prosecutors said, raising the specter of further probes into other top state officials.

“I have agreed to this today to end what has been a two-year nightmare,” Harrell said in a statement. “To continue to fight this would have taken at least another year, possibly two.”

Harrell, who was indicted last month on nine criminal counts that included falsifying his private plane’s logbook to seek payment for non-existent travel, had previously denied any willful wrongdoing.

Under the plea agreement, Harrell will serve three years’ probation of a suspended six-year prison sentence and will pay a $30,000 fine, prosecutor David Pascoe said at a hearing in Columbia, the state capital.

He also agreed to surrender roughly $94,000 in campaign funds that he stood accused of paying himself for the personal use of his plane, Pascoe said.

Harrell, who suspended himself from the legislature a day after his indictment, has called the case against him a “political vendetta” carried out by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a fellow Republican, who ordered the investigation and convened a grand jury before appointing Pascoe.

In a statement, Wilson said his office would help ensure that Harrell upholds the terms of the agreement.

“This matter has confirmed that no one in South Carolina is above the law,” Wilson said in the statement, in which he declined to comment further on the case.

Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Eric Walsh