The Buzz

Attorney general’s opinion a blow to ethics investigations

Efforts to expand the investigation of possible ethics violations by state lawmakers have suffered a blow, thanks to opinions from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office.

In a Dec. 11 opinion, Wilson’s office said legislators can spend campaign money on businesses that they or their relatives run. The opinion also said S.C. House majority leaders can send GOP caucus business to their own firms.

The opinions were requested by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who is investigating lawmakers named in a State Law Enforcement Division report. Democrat Pascoe took over that investigation after Republican Wilson recused himself, saying he might have a conflict of interest because of the legislators named in the SLED report.

The lawmakers in question have never been named publicly. Their names were blacked out in the two-year-old SLED report.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Berkeley Republican and former House majority leader, previously has been linked to the redacted portion of that SLED report.

Additionally, several legislators pay family members to help with their campaigns.

Pascoe’s office said it thought the practices it is investigating were illegal and sought an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney general’s opinions are nonbinding, but the opinion from Wilson’s office could end the investigation into the legislators, said John Crangle, S.C. director for government watchdog Common Cause. That investigation started with questions about the legality of expenses claimed by then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who subsequently resigned and entered a guilty plea in 2014.

“It remains to be seen whether this is all smoke designed to basically blurry the investigation,” Crangle said of the attorney general’s opinion.

Wilson’s office disagreed.

“This opinion does not comment on any specific investigation, any case or any individuals,” said J. Mark Powell, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, in a statement to The State. “We disagree with Mr. Crangle because Attorney General opinions address only the law, not the facts, and attempt to determine how a court may rule on legal questions.”

Issues in question

In its opinion, Wilson’s office said it is legal for a lawmaker to use campaign donations to pay their business or family members, as long as the campaign money is used for a legitimate campaign purpose.

“What I’ve read (in the opinion) is consistent with everything I’ve been told over the years by lawyers and people who have been charged with regulating this activity,” said state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who previously has hired his father’s political consulting business – Richard Quinn and Associates.

Richard Quinn and Associates also has been hired by Attorney General Wilson, R-Lexington.

Other legislators also have paid family members in connection with their campaigns.

Referring to a recent House Ethics Committee ruling, Wilson’s opinion also said it is legal for a House majority leader “to cause or influence” the House GOP Caucus to hire and pay the majority leader’s business.

Being a caucus member is not part of a legislator’s official duties, such as casting a vote on the House floor, the opinion said. Instead, caucus activities are “incidental” to a legislator’s duties.

That opinion is “just flat wrong,” Crangle said.

Merrill, a former House majority leader, is a public relations and marketing consultant. He owns Geechie Communications, which has been hired by at least one House member.

Pascoe still could decide to prosecute the lawmakers, the attorney general’s opinion notes. “(W)e emphasize that the ultimate decision as to whether or not to prosecute in a given circumstance rests with you as solicitor,” the opinion states.

Reached Thursday, Pascoe said “it would be premature for me to comment.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope. Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed.