S.C. Political Corruption, Part 1: Jim Merrill

S.C. Political Corruption, Part 1: Jim Merrill

A year or so ago, I was driving around Charleston with a member of the S.C. Legislature talking about various people, problems and politics in the Statehouse. My friend is a long-time legislator and one of the most decent and honorable public servants I know.

As we topped the Ravenel Bridge, I asked him, “Is Jim Merrill a crook?” After a long pause, he said, “That is a question of law that must be determined by the courts…but, he is extremely bold.”

Last week, State Representative Jim Merrill was indicted on 30 counts of using his office to funnel $1.3 million to himself and his business. A court of law will now decide if he is a crook. As for his (and his fellow legislators’) boldness, there is a lot that we know now and a lot more that we are going to learn in the months to come.

Let’s begin with the case against Merrill – but first we should all remember that under our legal system, a person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty. And, this presumption extends to Merrill.

As recounted by The State newspaper, Solicitor David Pascoe’s indictment alleges that

“… four entities together paid Merrill $534,178 in exchange for policy favors, including sponsoring legislation.” Those involved who made the payments have a different explanation:

  • Payment # 1, $283,693 – An attorney for the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said Merrill’s business was paid to write promotional materials for tourism publications.
  • Payment # 2, $172,486 – New Jersey-based bus contractor Student Transportation of America says it paid Merrill to market its business to school districts across the Southeast.
  • Payment # 3, $43,000 – The chief executive of Savannah-based Thomas & Hutton Engineering says his firm hired Merrill as a public relations consultant during the 2008 economic downturn.
  • Payment # 4, $35,000 – Infilaw, a Florida-based company that runs for-profit law schools and attempted to buy the Charleston School of Law, says it hired Merrill for his “public relations and policy support in the Charleston area.”

Additionally, the indictment said Merrill was paid $391,175 for his public influence by the S.C. Association of Realtors.

S.C. Common Cause Director and ethics watchdog John Crangle said, “These entities have no choice but to deny the allegations. Private companies or individuals can be charged under state and federal bribery laws if they attempt to buy a public official’s influence. I’m skeptical of interest groups that go to public officials and hire them to do some kind of work when there is a reasonable expectation that public official will do something in his public office that will give an advantage to a person who is paying him.”

Beyond the particulars of the Merrill indictment, there are several other aspects of the case that are even more troubling than the individual issues of Merrill’s activities.

First, no one thinks that this is an unusual or isolated case; this is just the most recent case in the continuing prosecution of corrupt members of legislature. In the last few years, several other House and Senate members have been prosecuted, most notably Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell who pleaded guilty to a variety of corruption charges and resigned his office in October 2014.

No one (expect David Pascoe and his staff) knows how many others are slated for indictment but the estimates rumored around the statehouse range from only a handful to as many as 15 to 20 more legislators.

Second, the way Merrill, Harrell et. al. have been operating has become accepted as simply politics as usual. Not one member of the legislature, lobbyist or Statehouse hanger-on is on record as saying, “What a surprise, I’m shocked.” It’s just simply the way business is done in the Statehouse.

Third, simple ethics reforms could fix the problems (or a lot of them). Four simple reforms: 1) require lawmakers to report in detail all sources of income and release their income tax returns, 2) prohibit legislators from doing business with state, county or local governments, 3) create an independent ethics watch dog agency with real teeth and the power to send corrupt politicians to jail, and 4) reform the Democratic and Republican party caucus system that allows large sums of special interest money to be funneled to legislators, their families, their businesses and their campaigns.

We in South Carolina don’t deserve this corruption.

And, it’s just this type of special interest corruption that keeps us from tackling the many other important issues that face our state.

We deserve legislators that have a basic sense of honesty and integrity. We deserve legislators that view their office as an opportunity for public service and not an opportunity for a personal profit center.

The title of this column is S.C. Political Corruption, Part 1: Jim Merrill. There will certainly be a Part 2, Part 3, Part 4… who knows how many.

Stay tuned.

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