- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Following the 30-count indictment of a former state House majority leader, questions over who else may face corruption charges will loom over the 2017 legislative session.

The misconduct and ethics charges announced Dec. 14 against 16-year veteran GOP Rep. Jim Merrill - the first since former Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty and resigned more than two years ago - ended all speculation that lawmakers could breathe easy.

And prosecutor David Pascoe made clear he’s not done.

“This is still an ongoing investigation,” he said in his Dec. 14 statement.

He repeated that to a judge on Thursday, when Merrill was allowed to remain free from jail without paying a bond.

Merrill, majority leader from 2004 to 2008, is accused of illegally profiting from his position. The indictments allege his public relations and political consulting firm, Geechie Communications, collected more than $1 million between 2002 and 2016 from clients who hired him because of his office. That includes $276,600 the GOP caucus paid his company for political mailers and ads.

He’s accused of being a lobbyist and sponsoring legislation beneficial to two clients - one of which became law.

Ten of the counts accuse him of not reporting income from clients who lobby state government on 2008-2013 annual campaign disclosure reports.

Merrill adamantly denies doing anything illegal. His attorneys point to opinions issued by the House Ethics Committee and Attorney General Alan Wilson saying it’s not illegal for a legislative caucus to hire and pay a majority leader’s business.

“For over 20 years, his vocation and livelihood have been in the field of advertising, direct mail, and public relations,” their statement said.

But those opinions are just that - nonbinding interpretations of the law. They don’t have weight in court.

And Pascoe said Thursday Merrill overcharged the House GOP caucus for work he essentially sent himself. While Merrill told investigators he added a “modest markup,” evidence shows it was “more like 50, 75, sometimes over 100 percent,” Pascoe said.

Though Wilson handed the Harrell case to Pascoe in 2014, citing a conflict, it’s been just five months since the state Supreme Court gave Pascoe permission to continue. Wilson, a Republican, tried to fire Pascoe, a Democrat, in March, saying he lacked the authority to open a state grand jury to investigate beyond Harrell. The justices disagreed.

“How many other people will be criminally charged before it’s all over with?” said John Crangle of Common Cause, who’s been pushing for ethics reform for 30 years. “It’s hard to predict.”

But Crangle said he’s heartened to finally see state law enforcement willing to take on Statehouse corruption, rather than leave that to federal prosecutors. A 1990 FBI investigation called Operation Lost Trust resulted in 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists on charges including bribery, extortion and obstruction of justice.

The Legislature passed ethics laws in the operation’s wake but left plenty of loopholes that remain decades later.

Two so-called reform laws passed earlier this year - after four years of debate - made few changes. None address lobbying or any other jobs South Carolina’s part-time legislators can or can’t do.

Some of the accusations against Merrill are reminiscent of allegations Gov. Nikki Haley successfully sidestepped in 2012, when the then-GOP-dominated House Ethics Committee twice cleared her, and the state Supreme Court ruled that legislators, not courts, should handle citizen complaints against elected representatives.

A late GOP activist had accused Haley of lobbying for two employers while a House member and not reporting the income on campaign disclosures.

But Haley repeatedly argued no law required her to report that money, since her employer had contracts with state agencies, not the House itself. The State Ethics Commission agreed. Haley also argued her work didn’t meet the state’s legal definition of lobbying.

Another part of Haley’s defense was that other legislators do it. Failing to dismiss the complaint, the committee was warned, would open a Pandora’s Box.

“Indeed, Gov. Haley’s business activities and conduct are commonplace in the Legislature and were always consistent with the law,” said her lawyer, Swatti Patel. To find otherwise, she said, would “impugn the integrity” of many other legislators and corporate partners.

At the time, some critics called the statement a threat.

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