Charleston state Rep. Jim Merrill resigns ahead of hearing in Statehouse corruption case

Rep. Jim Merrill (right) and one of his lawyers Rep. Leon Stavrinakis wait for the start of Merrill’s December 2016 bond hearing in Columbia. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

State Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston submitted his resignation from the Legislature Thursday night hours before he is scheduled to appear in court in Columbia in connection to the Statehouse corruption probe.

The resignation note was confirmed by House Speaker Jay Lucas’ office. It is effective Friday.

Merrill is scheduled to be in court Friday morning where the case special prosecutor will hold a hearing regarding the veteran lawmaker, who has been indicted on 30 ethics violations.

Prosecutor David Pascoe would not comment on the purpose of the hearing. But the language used in the case notification is nearly identical to an announcement Pascoe’s office released just before former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to ethics-related charges in 2014.

Harrell’s guilty plea required him to cooperate with authorities in the probe. "The failure of (Harrell) to be fully truthful and forthright at any stage" would spell the end of his plea agreement and expose him to further prosecution, Pascoe and the agreement said at the time.

Merrill, a Republican who lives on Daniel Island, referred comment to his attorney, fellow state lawmaker Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. Stavrinakis declined to say what would transpire Friday.

Merrill, 50, has been suspended from office since a grand jury handed down indictments against him in December. He is one of four lawmakers charged in connection with the ongoing Statehouse probe.

He is also the second lawmaker to resign from office as a result of the long-running investigation of Statehouse corruption, following Harrell, also of Charleston.

Two other lawmakers remain suspended awaiting trial.

The indictment documents filed against Merrill accuse the former House majority leader of engaging in a pattern of wrong-doing between 2002 and last year. Specifically, the violations include two counts of misconduct in office and 28 counts for violating the state’s Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act of 1991 that was adopted following the FBI’s Statehouse sting known as Operation Lost Trust.

Merrill is accused of using his office and his consulting firm, Geechie Communications, to garner more than $1 million from trade groups and companies at a time when he was both a lawmaker and a consultant across several platforms.

He stands accused of failing to report money he received from companies and groups that lobby legislators, using his office for financial gain, failing to file reports of campaign-related spending from the House Republican Caucus and overcharging for his work.

Several of the charges are misdemeanors, but Merrill can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on either of the two misconduct charges.

Three charges of allegedly receiving payments through his company to influence a public official are felonies and carry up to 10 years each.

The Post and Courier first raised questions about Merrill’s dealings in a 2012 story that touched on some of the issues outlined in the indictments. Merrill also figured prominently in "Capitol Gains," a 2015 series the newspaper produced with the Center for Public Integrity exploring South Carolina’s loophole-ridden campaign finance system that allows state lawmakers to use their campaign war chests like personal ATM machines.

Merrill’s legal team initially called the charges against him flawed and indicated they planned to fight the allegations. He has kept a low public profile since his December bond hearing, and he has avoided the fiery attacks on Pascoe that others snared in the probe have lobbed at the prosecutor.

Harrell is the only target so far convicted in connection with the investigation. He pleaded guilty in October 2014 to misusing campaign funds for personal use and resigned from office.

Misconduct charges are pending against Rep. Rick Quinn, a Lexington Republican accused of failing to report more than $4.5 million paid to companies operated by him and his father, and using his position as House majority leader to steer $270,000 in House Republican Caucus funds to family businesses.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, also is accused of using Quinn’s father’s firm as a pass-through to convert more than $130,000 in campaign money for personal use.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.

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