Politics & Government

‘I’ve come to expect it’ – SC reacts to corruption probe

Corruption probe in the South Carolina State House

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Some Midlands residents said Thursday they think the indictment of a S.C. legislator – and news that more indictments could be coming – is just the norm for government.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, who has been suspended from office, is charged with misconduct in office and violating state ethics law, allegations the Berkeley Republican denies.

“I’ve come to expect it,” said David Stowe, 23, of the public corruption charges.

“The key to change with this issue begins with citizens valuing humility and honor in the candidates that they choose,” Stowe said.

The public is no stranger to government corruption, said Sayward Harrison of Columbia.

“Wealth and power just go together in our society,” she said, noting President-elect Donald Trump plans to fill his cabinet with billionaires. That could create “all sorts of conflicts of interest,” in domestic and international dealings.

However, the charges do not inspire public confidence in government, said Harrison’s husband, Conor Harrison.

The United States has “a long history of what we would normally think of as conflict of interest or perhaps even corruption,” Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski said, citing monopolistic railroad tycoons, New York’s Tammany Hall political machine and other scandals.

“A lot of people equate politicians with graft and selfishness and corruption,” Kedrowski said.

In recent years, however, ethics laws have been passed to define some actions as illegal, she said.

The latest charges could result in new calls for ethics reform as well as impacting other parts of S.C. politics.

A look at some of the ripple effects that could result:

1. Lawmakers could have to disclose more about their finances

Merrill is accused of illegally using his elected office to pocket at least $1.3 million either directly or through his business, Geechie Communications.

The charges point to the need to strengthen the disclosure laws that govern lawmakers, government watchdogs say.

For example, an ethics reform law passed earlier this year does not require a legislator to report if his or her business profits from a company that pays a lobbyist to push for legislative proposals.

“The core issue is always: Is something influencing a public official to look after … their own interest rather than that of the citizens?” said Lynn Teague, an ethics reform advocate with the League of Women Voters.

2. Caucuses could open up their activities

Merrill also is accused of using his former position as S.C. House majority leader, overseeing the S.C. House Republican Caucus, to drum up business for his company.

Critics say the four legislative caucuses – two in the S.C. House and two in the Senate, one Republican and one Democratic in each chamber – should be more open.

The caucuses say they are private groups.

But media outlets and open-government advocates have argued they are public bodies that meet in public buildings.

In some cases, they are powerful public bodies, critics say. For example, 80 state representatives – almost two-thirds of the 124 members of the House – are members of the House Republican Caucus. That means that any time the House GOP caucus meets privately to discuss policy it also could be deciding state law.

“The role of the caucus absolutely needs to be clarified,” said Teague of the League of Women voters. “We all know that the caucuses in the General Assembly have a very big role, in fact, in passing legislation.”

Some caucus leaders are promising reform.

Before he recently was elected House majority leader, for example, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, promised his Republican colleagues the House GOP caucus will be more open to the public about its spending.

3. Democrats will try to capitalize on corruption probe

Hours after Merrill’s indictment, the S.C. Democratic Party released a statement labeling it “just the latest manifestation of the Republican culture of corruption that has taken hold over 14 years of GOP rule in South Carolina.”

S.C. Democrats will try to capitalize on the indictment in the upcoming legislative session. But the issue is unlikely to win them any new State House seats in 2018, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.

“This is probably not going to be in the forefront of voters’ minds by the next time an election rolls around,” Huffmon said. “We’re going to have two years of President Trump making headlines, and we’re going to have a gubernatorial race, which is really going to suck the air out of the room.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

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