A high-profile Charleston legislator and former South Carolina House Majority Leader has now been suspended from office after his indictment on corruption-related charges Wednesday.
The Richland County Grand Jury indicted State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, on two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts of ethics violations. Merrill is accused of not reporting more than $1.3 million he and his consulting firm received from organizations and businesses on whose behalf he then lobbied for legislation in the state House of Representatives.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe had been appointed as a special prosecutor to probe for corruption at the Statehouse on behalf of the state Attorney General’s Office. He announced the charges on Wednesday.
“At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations,” said Pascoe in a statement released with the indictment, “Mr. Merrill is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
On receiving the indictment charges House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, suspended Merrill from his position.
“This suspension is in pursuant to state law and will remain in place until the matter is resolved or the seat is declared vacant,” Lucas said in a statement.
Merrill “adamantly” denied the charges in a statement released by his attorney Leon Stavrinakis.
“The work performed by Jim Merrill’s private company was completely legal and legitimate,” Stavrinakis wrote, arguing that Merrill’s conduct “was not illegal under South Carolina law.”
Stavrinakis is also a Democratic legislator from Charleston who frequently allies with Merrill on House matters that impact the Charleston region.
Merrill has represented Berkeley and Charleston counties since 2001. He was elected by his fellow Republicans as the Majority Leader in 2004.
The indictments claim that Merrill has been accepting money from various groups from as far back as 2002 and failed to report those contributions to the proper channels. It also alleges that Merrill accepted over $391,000 from the South Carolina Association of Realtors to sponsor bills from May 2008 to April 2012, which directly benefited the association or its affiliates. The indictment claims most of those contributions (nearly $212,000) in 2009 while promoting “point of sale” legislation that would benefit realtors.
Merrill operates a consulting and printing business. He was then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign director in South Carolina.
According to another indictment, Merrill accepted $172,485 from Student Transportation of America, Inc. through his business Geechie Communications from 2011 until 2016 and failed to report the money. During that time, Merrill has been an advocate for decentralizing the state’s school bus fleet. According to the indictment, Merrill received a $3,000 per-month retainer to sponsor and promote legislation that would have privatized the state fleet.
More indictments also accuse Merrill of laundering more than $148,000 for Geechie Communications from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) or its affiliates between 2012 and 2014. Prosecutors say the CVB made payments to a public affairs firm owned by Merrill’s brother. During that time, a House budget panel that Merrill chaired helped ensure CVB received a “substantial” amount of its budget through a state agency Merrill’s subcommittee oversaw on budget matters
The indictments also charge Merrill with not reporting $35,000 in payments that his business received from Infilaw in 2014. At the time, Infilaw was attempting to acquire the private Charleston School of Law. South Carolina legislators were trying to stop the sale at the time after strong pushback from students and faculty. Charleston County’s delegation later pushed for a nonprofit to purchase the school instead after learning about Merrill’s involvement.
In addition to his undisclosed lobbying money, Merrill is also accused of using his position in the House to charge the House Republican Caucus and Palmetto Leadership Council roughly $275,521 for candidate mailings and advertisement placements during elections and failing to properly report the payments in an “effort to conceal” them. The indictments also claim Merrill illegally marked up his actual costs by more than 50 percent for printing and graphic services.