The Buzz

SC lawmakers say SLED report clears them

Two top S.C. lawmakers named in secret portions of a SLED report about possible State House corruption said Thursday that report shows they broke no laws in steering political work to their businesses.

"Sorry, it's not sexy guys," state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, told reporters. "I'm sorry nobody is stealing money or embezzling money or shifting grants to somewhere or public corruption. But it ain't there. ... Well, I'm not sorry. I'm very pleased.”

In other developments Thursday tied to the State House investigation:

▪  S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson's office declined to say whether the naming of state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, in the State Law Enforcement Division report led to his recusal from the case. Quinn’s father is Wilson’s top political consultant.

▪  Rep. Quinn said he does not think Wilson is protecting him. The State reported late Wednesday that Quinn — like Merrill — was named in the blacked-out portions of the SLED report.

▪  The GOP’s House leader said he did not think the revelations would hurt Merrill, Quinn or other Republican candidates in elections later this year.

▪  Five current Republican House members said they did not think it was fair they were among 18 GOP lawmakers and candidates named in the SLED report. They said they have not been contacted by authorities about potential violations of campaign contribution limits that date back six to eight years.

“I don’t think this probe is about us,” said Rep. Mark Willis, a Greenville Republican named in the report.

No charges have been filed in the State House investigation since Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned from office after pleading guilty to misusing campaign money in October 2014.

In recent weeks, the probe has taken unusual twists as a legal fight broke out between Wilson and 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, the special prosecutor that Wilson assigned to the case.

Wilson stepped away from the case in a 2014 citing "inherent conflicts between myself and members of the House" mentioned in portions blacked out from a SLED report that was released to the public.

Last month, the Republican attorney general fired Democrat Pascoe in a dispute over using the State Grand Jury as part of the corruption investigation, a use that Wilson said only he could make. Pascoe has sued Wilson in state Supreme Court, saying the attorney general cannot fire him. The court agreed Thursday to hear that argument.

Pascoe declined to comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office said Wilson would not stop working with the political consulting firm run by Quinn’s father.

"The fact that someone inappropriately leaked sealed information has not changed Attorney General Wilson’s relationship with Richard Quinn & Associates," Wilson spokeswoman Hayley Thrift said.

Quinn, who faces a GOP primary challenge in June, questioned the timing of secret sections of the SLED report being shown to The State. He noted the issues raised in the SLED report stem from 2001 to 2004, when he led the House Republican caucus.

"Anybody would wonder why —14 years later — this is coming out and being leaked," he said. "I'm happy it's out because I believe anybody who looks at it objectively knows nothing wrong has happened."

Quinn and Merrill, who was the House majority leader from 2004 to 2008, also cited opinions by the House Ethics Committee and Attorney General Wilson’s office saying their family businesses could be paid for work done for the GOP caucus, such as producing campaign mailers.

That is a reason why House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said he does not think the inclusion of Merrill and Quinn in the SLED investigation will hurt their re-election chances.

As for the GOP House members alleged to have received excess campaign contributions in the SLED report, Bannister and House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said they think SLED might not understand how party caucuses work.

Caucuses can send out campaign mailers — advocating a stance or a vote that a lawmaker made — that do not count toward campaign contribution limits, Bannister and Bingham said. Those ads cannot be coordinated with the lawmaker and cannot call directly for voting for a candidate, they said.

“They (SLED) have misinterpreted what is a campaign contribution,” Bannister said.

Lawmakers in SLED report

Six current Republican state House members were among 18 GOP representatives and candidates named in blacked-out portions of a SLED report on former House Speaker Bobby Harrell. They were mentioned for potentially receiving excess campaign contributions from Harrell’s leadership committee or the House GOP Caucus, when factoring in the value of mailers made during 2008 or 2010. The five lawmakers reached by The State said they have not been contacted by authorities. Here are their responses:

Derham Cole of Spartanburg: “I have never seen a report where my name appears, so I don’t know that I could really comment on what may be in there.”

Shannon Erickson of Beaufort: “There’s not anything I did wrong.”

Deborah Long of Lancaster, who is not seeking re-election: “We’re not allowed to collaborate on mailers (with the House GOP Caucus). I remember that mailer they sent out on my behalf, and I didn’t like it because it was a negative one, saying, ‘I’m better than the other guy because he’s bad.’ ”

Phillip Lowe of Florence: Did not respond to interview requests.

Mike Sottile of Charleston: “I have gone through all my campaign records, and I am confident all my contributions and all my filings are correct.”

Mark Willis of Greenville: “I don’t think it was fair we’re in the report. It’s floored me. I have a good name in my community. My grandfather always said, ‘You can get a new home or get a new car, but you can’t get a new name.’ ”

Andrew Shain

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC