Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, was indicted Wednesday on two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts of ethics violations, according to a news release from 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe.
“At this point in the process, the indictments are mere accusations. Mr. Merrill is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Pascoe said in the news release.
Rep. Jay Lucas, speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives, suspended Merrill immediately after receiving the indictments.
“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 an emailed statement.
The charges against Merrill say he used his position as a House member to obtain a personal profit from Jan. 1, 2002, through July 1, 2016, and that he violated the Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act of 1991.
They say Merrill acted as a lobbyist from May 14, 2008, through April 25, 2012, by accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the S.C. Association of Realtors to influence voting on legislation that benefited the association. Merrill was paid through his public relations business Geechie Communications and did not report or file a statement of economic interest for the payments, the indictments say.
InfiLaw, the company that was at one point attempting to purchase the Charleston School of Law, also paid Merrill, according to the indictments. They say InfiLaw Management Solutions LLC gave Merrill about $35,000. After receiving the money, Merrill became chairman of the Higher Education subcommittee and used his position to influence decisions involving InfiLaw’s purchase of the school, the indictments say. The school was ultimately purchased by Georgetown attorney Ed Bell.
Through Geechie Communications, Merrill also was paid $172,485 by Student Transportation of America Inc. He then sponsored bill H.4610 to privatize school buses in the state, which directly benefited the transportation company, according to the indictments.
The indictments say that while he was acting as chairman of the Legislative, Executive and Local Government subcommittee, Merrill laundered nearly $150,000 to Geechie Communications from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau through his brother’s business Pluff Mud Public Affairs LLC. The subcommittee oversees the budget for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and the visitors bureau receives funding from PRT.
Merrill also received $43,000 from Thomas & Hutton Engineering Co., $37,000 from the S.C. Association of Convenience Stores, $24,000 from the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association and $56,000 from the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance — none of which was reported, according to the indictments.
The indictments additionally say Merrill colluded with the House Republican Caucus and the Palmetto Leadership Council to give candidate contributions to members of the Republican Caucus in excess of $5,000 and accept contributions in excess of $3,500.
‘Adamantly denies the charges’
Merrill hired attorneys Matthew Hubbell and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, to represent him. They issued a joint statement Wednesday saying that Merrill “adamantly denies the charges.”
“He has served honorably and in good faith as a part-time member of the General Assembly. For over 20 years, his vocation and livelihood has been in the field of advertising, direct mail and public relations,” the statement said. “Contrary to the flawed allegations made today, the work performed by Jim Merrill’s private company was completely legal and legitimate.”
“Rep. Merrill acted in good faith and looks forward to defending himself in court,” the statement concluded.
A date for a bond hearing has not been set.