Out of sight, the public corruption investigation into suspended Rep. James Merrill, R-Berkeley, is continuing, even though law officers are keeping a low profile.
“No comment,” said special prosecutor David Pascoe when contacted Monday about the investigation.
SLED chief Mark Keel told The State newspaper, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation.”
Merrill was indicted Dec. 14 on 30 charges that accuse him of misconduct in office as far back as 2002 as well as a series of ethics violations. He is currently free on a $146,000 personal recognizance bond.
In all, Merrill is accused of using his public office and his private company, Geechie Communications, to illegally pocket at least $1.3 million from 2002 to 2016. His lawyers said he is innocent.
Merrill’s indictment came 26 months after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston pleaded guilty in October 2014 to state charges of misusing campaign money. Prosecutor Pascoe agreed to let Harrell avoid prison in return for Harrell agreeing to tell investigators about illegal activities of others.
After Harrell pleaded guilty, state Attorney General Alan Wilson looked into follow-up investigations but apparently made little progress. In 2015, Wilson gave Pascoe the go-ahead to keep on investigating as a special prosecutor, but then – when Pascoe tried to activate a State Grand Jury with special subpoena powers – Wilson tried to fire Pascoe. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled last July, however, that Wilson could not fire Pascoe. Five months later, Pascoe indicted Merrill.
Now, people are wondering if Harrell gave Pascoe and his SLED investigators information that led to Merrill’s indictment.
Neither Merrill nor Harrell could be reached Monday.
Longtime General Assembly ethics watchdog John Crangle said Monday it is quite likely that Harrell gave information to law enforcement that resulted in Merrill’s indictment.
“Harrell rolled over on Merrill, and then it’s likely Merrill talked about the Quinn firm. I think Pascoe hasn’t closed the Merrill case because Merrill is cooperating,” said Crangle, who represents the S.C. Progressive Network, a group of activist organizations.
Crangle was referring to the political consulting firm, Richard Quinn & Associates, operated by Richard Quinn. Quinn told The State on Saturday he has done nothing wrong.
Late last week, Pascoe’s State Grand Jury indicted longtime Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, for an alleged scheme that involved Courson paying a subsidiary of the Quinn firm out of his campaign account for campaign expenses and then getting money back from the Quinn firm and spending it for his own personal use.
Crangle said it’s likely that as Pascoe was investigating the Quinn firm, he came across information that formed the basis of last week’s indictment of Courson. Courson’s lawyer, Rose Mary Parham, has characterized the indictment as a “witch-hunt” and said Courson has not violated any law.
Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, worked with Crangle in 2012 and 2013 to bring allegations of General Assembly public corruption before state law enforcement officials.
She said Monday she is “frustrated” by the probe’s slow pace.
Landess said she would have expected far more indictments by now, given that in 2014, Harrell was supposed to inform on his fellow lawmakers. “We expected a massive, all-the-way to the top, takedown investigation.”
Crangle, however, said Pascoe had a delay of some 18 months before beginning his investigation of Merrill last August. And, Crangle said, both Pascoe and SLED have a reputation for being slow and methodical when they build cases.
“You rarely see Pascoe or SLED lose cases,” Crangle said.
“The pace of indictments is going to accelerate,” he predicted, “and you will see these guys – the lawmakers – rolling over on each other like circus acrobats.”