First domino falls related to Harrell probe

First domino falls related to Harrell probe
December 16 15:27 2016 Print This Article

State Representative Jim Merrill was indicted December 14 on 30 counts of ethics and misconduct violations. He was immediately suspended from his House seat, which includes Daniel Island and parts of Hanahan and Mt. Pleasant, by Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville.

The indictment is the first related to the state grand jury investigation of former Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston insurance agent, who was indicted on charges of improper use of campaign funds in September 2014. Post and Courier reporter Renee Dudley did investigative reporting in September 2012 indicating that Harrell had spent $325,000 in campaign contributions without itemized expenditures on his disclosure forms or receipts.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called for an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) in March 2013. When the investigation revealed grounds for indictment, Wilson removed himself from the case and appointed South Carolina’s 1st Judicial Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who represents Dorchester, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties, as the special prosecutor to present the findings to the state grand jury.

After the Harrell indictments were handed down in 2014, the House Speaker accepted a plea deal to resign his seat in exchange for cooperating with the special prosecutor in ongoing investigations of potential wrongdoing by other legislators. Wilson attempted to remove Pascoe from continuing the grand jury investigation, a move which was later overturned by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Among the charges against Merrill are not disclosing money his public relations firm Geechie Communications received from groups lobbying the state government, including the South Carolina Association of Realtors (nearly $400,000), the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (more than $283,000) and Student Transportation of America (more than $272,000). He is also accused of using his positions on the House Ways and Means and Higher Education committees to benefit clients.

Merrill has not yet been bonded and no trial date has been set. Other legislators are expected to be indicted based on the findings of the Pascoe grand jury. It is the biggest scandal to hit the South Carolina General Assembly since the federal Operation Lost Trust probe in 1990, which led to the conviction of 17 legislators and 10 lobbyists.