State representative suspended, indicted on misconduct, ethics violation charges

State representative suspended, indicted on misconduct, ethics violation charges

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A South Carolina State Representative has been indicted by the state grand jury in direct connection with a probe into issues at the State House.

Former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill was indicted Wednesday for two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts for violations of the Ethics, Government Accountability, and Campaign Reform Act of 1991.

The grand jury indictments allege Merrill's company, Geechie Communications, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities such as the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the South Carolina Manufacturer's Alliance and the South Carolina Association of Realtors in exchange for favorability in the State House as far back as 2002.

One accusation finds Merrill's company received $391,174.95 from the state realtors group and failed to report it.

Geechie Communications also allegedly accepted $276,561.03 from the House Republican Caucus and more than $84,021.61 from the Palmetto Leadership Council, a political-action committee with ties to former SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Merrill's attorney's released a statement Wednesday night in response to the indictment saying: " Representative Jim Merrill adamantly denies the charges brought against him by Solicitor David Pascoe. He has served honorably and in good faith as a part-time member of the General Assembly.  For over 20 years, his vocation and livelihood has been in the field of advertising, direct mail, and public relations. Contrary to the flawed allegations made today, the work performed by Jim Merrill's private company was completely legal and legitimate.  Solicitor Pascoe has charged Representative Merrill for conduct that is not illegal under South Carolina law.  In fact, the charges include conduct that has been declared legal in written opinions by the South Carolina Attorney General, the bi-partisan House Ethics Committee, and the State Ethics Commission. Representative Merrill acted in good faith and looks forward to defending himself in court."

Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to six charges of using campaign funds for personal use and resigned from the state House of Representatives in October 2014. As a condition of his plea deal, Harrell was to testify in other cases.

Merrill's indictment is the first to follow Harrell's case.

Merrill was indicted following a legal campaign by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who was appointed by Attorney General Alan Wilson to oversee an investigation into possible corruption at the State House.

Pascoe released a statement on the charges.

"At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations," Pascoe said. "Mr. Merrill is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I also need to point out that this is still an ongoing investigation. Therefore, I will have no further comment regarding this matter."

As a result of the charges, Merrill was suspended by House Speaker Jay Lucas, who released a statement a short time later.

"I have received criminal indictments against Representative Jimmy Merrill (District 99-Berkeley) and have suspended him from the South Carolina House of Representatives effective immediately. This suspension is in pursuant to state law and will remain in place until the matter is resolved or the seat is declared vacant."

A bond hearing for Merrill has not yet been set.

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