Former House Majority Leader and Republican insider Rep. Jim Merrill will help the FBI and SLED in an ongoing corruption probe targeting his colleagues in the S.C. State House.
Merrill, 50, who represented Berkeley County, pleaded guilty Friday to a generally worded charge of using his office for personal profit. His plea to one count of misconduct in office, a misdemeanor, came shortly after 11 a.m. at the Richland County courthouse in Columbia.
One of Merrill’s attorneys, state Democratic representative Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston, asked the judge for probation, saying there were no bribes or kickbacks involved, and giving numerous examples of how Merrill and his family have led exemplary lives in their Daniel Island community.
Judge Robert Hood then sentenced Merrill to a year of probation.
The plea agreement, signed Thursday, requires Merrill to help the FBI, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, agents with the State Law Enforcement Division and special prosecutor David Pascoe in their investigation involving members of the South Carolina General Assembly.
“The investigation is ongoing,” special prosecutor David Pascoe said after Merrill’s hearing. He declined to elaborate.
Longtime legislative ethics watchdog John Crangle of the S.C. Progressive Network, a citizen activist group, praised the guilty plea as a “significant achievement.”
“It’s going to have a deterrent effect on other public officials who might lapse into corruption, and it gets Merrill out of the House – we don’t need people like him who are there to line their own pockets,” Crangle said.
Crangle predicted Merrill’s cooperation will get other lawmakers indicted and said people should not think he got special treatment. “His life has been ruined. His reputation has been ruined. If anyone thinks Merrill got off easy, they are an idiot. What do you and I gain if Merrill sits in prison for five years except a $115,000 room and board bill?”
Merrill had been facing 30 criminal counts dating to 2002. The various counts accused him of unlawfully pocketing more than $1 million. Charges included specific allegations of taking money from various groups to influence legislation on their behalf and using his office to make money.
Under the generally worded charge to which he pleaded guilty, Merrill could have been sentenced to up to one year in prison and pay up to a $1,000 fine.
Merrill did not comment and deferred to his lawyers, both during the hearing and afterward, with the press.
The only thing the disgraced lawmaker said to reporters was “bye” – uttered as he walked by the media and headed to a door in the rear of the clerk of court’s records office that led to a network of nonpublic courthouse hallways and staircases.
From there, he slipped out of the building unobserved by cameras.
SLED, FBI COOPERATION
During Friday’s 22-minute hearing, Pascoe told the courtroom that Merrill has been cooperating with prosecutors, SLED and the FBI since March 31.
Just recently, information Merrill gave investigators early on has proved helpful, Pascoe said.
Specifically, the charge to which Merrill pleaded guilty involved his repeated failures to report money paid to his marketing company, Geechie Communications, from companies and trade associations who were lobbying the General Assembly, Pascoe said.
That was not bribery, Pascoe said.
“He also admits, Your Honor,” Pascoe told the judge, that “on at least one occasion there was an entity he did work for which he should have reported it to the presiding officer of the House, or not even taken a vote on that piece of legislation because it benefited his client.” Pascoe did not name the group.
Pascoe’s and the plea agreement’s reference to federal law enforcement was the first public acknowledgment in court records that the FBI has taken an interest in this phase of Pascoe’s probe.
In return for his guilty plea on the one charge, Merrill:
▪ Will have 29 counts of various criminal charges against held in abeyance while the public corruption probe continues. If Merrill provides “substantial assistance” to state and federal prosecutors, those charges will be dismissed at a later date. If Merrill doesn’t live up to the plea agreement, he faces prosecution on those charges.
In plea agreements such as Merrill signed, “substantial assistance” means information that leads to the prosecution of someone, said Jim Griffin, a Columbia defense attorney who is a former assistant U.S. Attorney. “It’s more than telling what you know – it’s telling what you know that bears fruit,” Griffin said.
▪ Resigned the S.C. House seat he has held for 17 years. His resignation was effective just before Friday morning’s hearing. Merrill had been suspended since his December indictment.
▪ Agreed to testify before grand juries and in court proceedings.
▪ Agreed to submit to lie detector tests.
In the hearing, Pascoe took pains to single out SLED chief Mark Keel and the two lead agents on the case, Capt. Richard Gregory and Lt. Jeremy Smith – all three were in the courtroom – for their “tenacity” in pursuing the case against Merrill.
“This has been their investigation,” Pascoe said.
Pascoe’s praise of Keel appeared to be a jab at S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who in an Aug. 19 Charleston Post & Courier article indicated that the Attorney General’s office had at times played a crucial role in investigating public corruption at the State House corruption and had even helped SLED.
Until Friday’s hearing, the public posture by Merrill and his lawyers was that he was innocent. Guilty pleas such as the one that Merrill made are often the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between prosecution and defense.
As an insider with knowledge of how money fuels politics in the Palmetto State and ties to the workings of the Legislature and lobbyists, Merrill is in a position to give prosecutors plenty of information about how to convict his fellow lawmakers if they have committed criminal offenses.
In 2016, Merrill led the primary campaign of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in South Carolina. In the State House, before he was suspended from office, he was a member of the powerful S.C. House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the first draft of the state budget.
Merrill’s political experience includes being press secretary for the late U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence, R-Lexington, and political director of the S.C. Republican Party from 1992 to 1998.
Elected to the House in 2000, Merrill led the House GOP Caucus from 2004 to 2008. SLED investigators have reviewed financial records from the caucus dating to 1995. Caucus leaders have refused to let reporters see those records. The State newspaper and other news outlets are suing the caucus, contending those records should be open under the state’s Freedom of Information law.
Merrill was re-elected in November without opposition.
Altogether, the 30 indictments against Merrill accuse him of illegally pocketing at least $1.3 million, either directly or through his business, Geechie Communications.
The payments from groups such as the S.C. Association of Realtors, Student Transportation of America, Thomas & Hutton Engineering, Infilaw Management Solutions, the S.C. Association of Convenience Stores, the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association and the S.C. Manufacturer’s Alliance.
Merrill failed to disclose receiving payments of more than $673,000 from trade, advocacy and political groups in violation of state ethics law, according to the 30 separate indictments.
If convicted on all counts, Merrill would face up to 66 years in prison, Pascoe has said.
Merrill was one of two lawmakers named in a confidential section of a 2013 report by the State Law Enforcement Division.
The report mostly addressed former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell. But it also contained eight confidential pages about other possible corruption at the State House. Those pages, as reported by The State newspaper, named Merrill as well as Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who was indicted by Pascoe on misconduct charges in July. Quinn, too, has been suspended from office.
This spring, Pascoe indicted Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, on misconduct charges. He also has been suspended from office.
QUINNS THE TARGET
Also said to be a potential target of Pascoe: longtime political consultant Richard Quinn, Rick Quinn’s father. In March, Richard Quinn’s Columbia offices on Gervais Street were raided and numerous documents and computer hardware and data seized.
The trail to Merrill and the Quinns started with the SLED investigation of Harrell.
In October 2014, Harrell pleaded guilty to conversion of campaign funds to personal use. He was the first lawmaker indicted and convicted in the probe. Merrill is the second.
Merrill’s defense lawyer Matthew Hubbell made it clear that Merrill had no reservations about helping SLED and the FBI.
“He’s going to continue to cooperate,” Hubbell told the judge. “He’s just going to keep telling the truth.”
September 2014: Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is indicted on charges of using campaign money for personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.
October 2014: Harrell pleads guilty to six state charges of misusing campaign money and resigns. He was given probation and agreed to tell federal and state authorities of any illegal activities by others, including lawmakers, that he knows of.
December 2016: S.C. House Majority Leader Rep. Merrill is indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations.
March: S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is indicted on three charges – two counts of misconduct in office and one of use of campaign funds for personal expenses. Courson and his attorneys have filed two challenges to the charges. One asserts that Pascoe has no authority to pursue anyone not named in a secret portion of a SLED investigative report on Harrell; Courson was not named in the report. The other challenges the legality of Pascoe’s use of the common law charge of misconduct in office.
Sept. 1: Merrill pleads guilty to one count of misconduct in office and resigns. He is sentenced to one year of probation and agrees to cooperate with federal and state authorities.