A prominent Lowcountry legislator will stay out of prison after pleading guilty to a misconduct in office charge Friday — but only after he agreed to help prosecutors investigating other corruption cases in the South Carolina Statehouse.
Former State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, formally resigned from office roughly an hour before entering a guilty plea in state court. Judge Robert Hood sentenced him to one year in prison, but suspended that to a year of probation. The judge cited Merrill’s willingness to cooperate with investigators and lack of previous criminal history. However, prosecutors also have the right to proceed with 29 other charges pending against Merrill if he does not work with them.
When asked if we wished to address the court, Merrill quipped, “Your Honor… I think my attorneys, at the risk of death, have told me that I need to defer. And I do, do that.”
Lead investigator First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said Merrill did not report nearly $1.3 million his firms, particularly Geechee Communications, have received over the past 15 years from “lobbyist principals,” or groups which had business or interests before the House. In court Friday, Pascoe emphasized the charge is because Merrill did not report the money. He said the legislator’s consulting firm did provide services to those groups in the forms of mailers and printing.
Merrill had been suspended from office ever since his indictment late last year. He had served in the House since 2001 and was the House Majority Leader in the mid-2000s. He was also state political advisor for then-candidate Donald Trump’s South Carolina GOP primary campaign last year.
Pascoe told the court Merrill voluntarily came forward with his attorneys with evidence for the corruption probe. He said the State Law Enforcement Division was later able to verify much of Merrill’s new information. Neither side went into any more detail about the nature of that evidence.
Merrill is now the second lawmaker convicted as part of Pascoe’s probe, which was initiated by the state Attorney General’s Office. Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to eight ethics-related charges in 2014 and also resigned. Two more Republican legislators have been suspended awaiting their own trials. State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is accused of laundering money from his campaign to his personal accounts through a political consulting firm operated by longtime advisor Richard Quinn. Quinn’s son State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, is accused of also not reporting money his businesses made from lobbyists principals while he served in House leadership positions.