Merrill pleads guilty to one count of misconduct in office, agrees to plea deal
Hours after submitting his resignation notice for the South Carolina House of Representatives’ seat he has held for the last 16 years, Daniel Island Republican Jim Merrill stood before a circuit court judge in Columbia on Friday and pleaded guilty to statutory misconduct in office. He also promised, through a plea agreement, to assist investigators in their ongoing government corruption probe.
When Merrill stepped into courtroom 2A in the Richland County Judicial Center on Sept. 1, he was joined by his attorneys, Leon Stavrinakis and Martin Hubbell, and his wife of 25 years, Noel. The veteran legislator and former House Majority Leader, who was indicted last December on 30 counts of ethics violations (two for misconduct in office and 28 for violations of the Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act of 1991), entered into the plea agreement with the State of South Carolina and Solicitor David Pascoe.
As part of the deal, Merrill pleaded guilty to one misconduct count, a misdemeanor, which stemmed from what Pascoe described as “habitual negligence by a public official.” The charge is related to work Merrill completed through his company, Geechie Communications, a firm that specializes in providing marketing, advertising and public relations services. According to Pascoe, Merrill admitted that “on multiple occasions” his company did work for lobbyist principals and that he failed to report some of that income on his Statement of Economic Interest (SEI).
“He just failed to admit, at times, monies he received,” Pascoe told the court.
Pascoe also stated that Merrill admitted to failing to recuse himself from a vote on a piece of legislation that benefitted one of his clients, or inform the House presiding officer of the potential conflict.
The misconduct guilty plea could have resulted in up to a one year prison sentence for Merrill, along with a $1000 fine. Instead, Judge Robert Hood ordered a suspended one year sentence with 12 months probation and no fine. The remaining 29 indictments against Merrill have not been dismissed, explained Pascoe, but are pending the former legislator’s full cooperation in the investigation.
“The state will proceed with the prosecution of the defendant on all remaining indictments if the defendant fails to comply…with the terms of this agreement,” said Pascoe.
As per the agreement, Merrill promised to resign his seat in the General Assembly, to be “fully truthful and forthright” with federal, state and local agencies by “providing full, complete and truthful information” regarding “all criminal activities about which he has knowledge,” to testify truthfully before any grand jury, trials or other proceedings, and to take polygraph tests requested by the state.
“He is subject to prosecution or perjury for not testifying truthfully,” stated Pascoe during the proceeding. “Provided that the defendant complies with all terms of this agreement, the state agrees that any self-incriminating information provided by the defendant as a result of his cooperation…will not be used against him.”
Additionally, if Merrill abides with the terms outlined by all parties, the state agrees “to dismiss all pending indictments against him,” said Pascoe, and that it will “not prosecute the defendant for any other offenses related to or rising out of this investigation, his service in the S.C. House of Representatives,” and his consulting work through Geechie Communications, excluding any newly discovered violations.
But, as Pascoe stated, if Merrill fails to comply, the agreement becomes null and void and the state may use any and all information provided in the prosecution of all charges. Pascoe also pointed out, however, that investigators have not seen any evidence that Merrill received any kinds of bribes or kickbacks during his tenure as a public official.
“If any such evidence is discovered in the upcoming months pursuant to this agreement, he will be prosecuted for that,” said Pascoe.
Also included in the agreement and presented in court was information about Merrill’s assistance and cooperation in the government’s corruption probe thus far. Pascoe told the court that without any kind of formal agreement in place and with his attorneys present, Merrill met last March with the prosecutor, members of his staff, the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to tell them what he knew.
“He was forthright in providing information that…in recent months though SLED’s investigation, looking at documents and talking to witnesses, his information has been corroborated,” Pascoe told Judge Hood.
“I have been on cases like this, where Mr. Pascoe stands and where you gentleman stand,” said Hood, addressing Merrill and his legal team. “And the fact that (Mr. Merrill) came in in March with his attorneys, without a proper agreement, without any cooperation agreement, without a plea agreement, and told the truth is a testimony to your character and your attempts to do the right thing.”
According to Hood, he took that information into consideration when sentencing Merrill to 12 months probation in the case.
After the hearing, Stavrinakis and Hubbell told reporters that Merrill would not be making any statements to the press. Instead, his attorneys spoke on his behalf. Stavrinakis reiterated that Merrill filed his SEIs as required by law, but that he “mistakenly” omitted information that should have been included “in several instances.”
“He has taken responsibility,” said Stavrinakis. “He met with law enforcement on his own…and he’s willing to continue to do that because he has never done anything but tell the truth in this matter.”
“We’re glad to get it resolved,” added Hubbell. “This was a fair agreement for all sides…Mr. Merrill is going to continue to tell the truth and to cooperate with the government. He accepted responsibility for this misdemeanor, for failing to include certain payments on his reports, so we’re pleased to reach this resolution with the Solicitor.”
When asked if Merrill planned to jump back into the political realm at some point in the future, Stavrinakis said “he has no plans to run for office.”
“He loves serving,” added Stavrinakis. “And the body is going to miss having someone like Jim, who is willing to take on some of the big boys in the lobby…(But) this was the right way to proceed and the right thing to do, and he’s at peace with it.”
Now that Merrill has officially resigned from his House District 99 seat, a special election will be held to fill the post, which covers portions of Charleston and Berkeley Counties, including Daniel Island. The filing period for those intending to run for the seat opens on September 15 and closes on September 23. A Primary election will be held on November 14, followed by a run-off, if needed, on November 28, and a general election on January 16, 2018. Daniel Island resident Shawn Pinkston and Mark Smith of Mount Pleasant are the first to publicly announce their candidacies for the seat.