- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s legislative session begins with two empty House seats and the possibility of additional suspensions amid a prosecutor’s continued investigation into Statehouse corruption.

The cases of the two suspended House members are vastly different, but for residents of both districts, the result is an absent representative.

Rep. Chris Corley, R-Graniteville, faces up to 25 years in prison for allegations he beat his wife Dec. 26. He is set to appear in court Wednesday.

Corley’s wife told deputies he stopped hitting her only after noticing she was bleeding and hearing their children screaming. Corley told officers his wife tried to punch him after accusing him of cheating. The 36-year-old attorney has not returned phone calls or publicly responded to legislators’ calls that he resign.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, is accused of illegally profiting from his position. The former House majority leader was indicted Dec. 14 on misconduct and ethics charges stemming from his leadership role and public relations company. He says he did nothing illegal and will fight the charges.

Watchdog groups hope Solicitor David Pascoe’s continued investigations prompt another push this year for stronger ethics laws.

Legislators had called ethics reform a top priority since 2012. But despite four years of debate, and several people pushed from office, the two so-called reform laws passed at the end of last session made few changes.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said it’s highly unlikely legislators will revisit the issue so soon.

“We’re weary of dealing with it, having just passed it,” he told reporters at a Jan. 5 legislative workshop.

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Here’s a look at officeholders who have resigned in disgrace since 2012 and why:

LT. GOV. KEN ARD

After just a year in office, Ard resigned in March 2012 and pleaded guilty to seven ethics violations. He received five years’ probation and 300 hours of public service.

Attorney General Alan Wilson said Ard gave $75,000 of his own money to people who then gave that money back to him as individual contributions, giving the illusion on campaign filings of broad support. The plea came eight months after Ard paid a $48,000 ethics fine for using money from his 2010 campaign account to pay for personal items, like a family vacation, football tickets and a flat-screen TV.

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SEN. ROBERT FORD

Ford resigned in May 2013 amid legislative hearings on allegations he used campaign donations for personal expenses and then tried to cover it up.

His resignation ensured his colleagues couldn’t expel him, and the case was sent to Wilson’s office.

The Charleston Democrat was sentenced in May 2015 to five years of probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of misconduct in office, forgery and ethics law violations. He was also ordered to pay $70,000 in restitution.

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HOUSE SPEAKER BOBBY HARRELL

Pascoe’s Statehouse probe began with Harrell’s case, which Wilson handed to the Democratic solicitor.

Harrell resigned in October 2014 and pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor charges of using campaign donations for his own benefit. The charges involved Harrell’s use of his private plane.

The Charleston Republican agreed to not seek office for three years, the length of his probation. He was also ordered to turn over about $10,000 from his campaign account and pay $123,000 in restitution and fines.

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REP. NELSON HARDWICK

Hardwick resigned voluntarily in May 2015 after House Speaker Jay Lucas investigated a sexual harassment complaint from a House staffer and told the Surfside Beach Republican he was sending a private law firm’s report to the attorney general.

Hardwick pleaded guilty last November to third-degree assault and battery and paid a $300 fine.

The indictment accused Hardwick of inappropriately touching a woman in his Statehouse office.

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REP. EDWARD SOUTHARD

Southard resigned last April after two House pages and a lobbyist complained his comments, hugs and touching on places like their knee or arm made them uncomfortable.

Two months later, the House Ethics Committee found the Moncks Corner Republican violated the chamber’s no harassment policy. He agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and remove his name from the ballot, preventing him from regaining his seat.

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REP. THAD VIERS

Viers resigned in March 2012 amid accusations he harassed an ex-girlfriend who authorities said collected a three-ring binder with unwanted texts, emails and phone calls. He had already ended a congressional bid and announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to his state House seat either.

The Myrtle Beach Republican later pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment and was sentenced to 60 days in jail on weekends.

In 2015, Viers pleaded guilty to money laundering for helping a construction company owner hide assets. He was recently transferred from federal prison to a halfway house and is due for release in June.

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