Merrill: Story unfairly maligns my integrity
BY JIM MERRILL
When a person’s good name is unfairly damaged in mass media, “where do you go to get your reputation back?”
I remembered that famous quote this past Sunday when The Post and Courier ran a front-page story headlined: “Merrill faces ethics question” implying that I was under some sort of ethics investigation.
Of course, it wasn’t true. The only person who had asked me any “questions” about ethics was the writer of the story. Everyone she spoke with in state government told her I was in complete compliance with all ethics laws and policies.
I am grateful the editors of The Post and Courier agreed to give me this space to respond, but far fewer people will read this column today than the front-page story in the Sunday edition. The damage done to my family and to my personal reputation by that misleading article cannot be undone. But I must make the effort. Here are the facts:
State legislators earn a salary of about $20,400 a year for part-time service. All state representatives do something else to support their families. For the past 20 years, I have been in the advertising business, helping hundreds of clients with commercials and direct mail. And I always take great care to make certain the work I do professionally does not conflict with any of my legislative duties.
Several weeks ago, The Post and Courier wrote an article about the Leadership PAC Speaker Bobby Harrell is associated with, reporting that my advertising business was one of many vendors hired to do work for it. Our payment was for a direct mail project.
In the article about Speaker Harrell, the reporter included a gross figure that my company had been paid, with the implication that it was somehow improper. I spoke with the reporter and explained that I had been hired to process direct mail. I told her my billings for mail projects are 90 percent postage and printing, and that my agency’s modest mark up was only 10 to 15 percent.
This past Sunday’s story was a follow-up by the same reporter, this time describing me as “taking in” large sums of money from the S.C. Association of Realtors. Again the story erroneously suggested that the entire cost of mail projects has been pocketed by me personally.
Sunday’s story also suggested I had been paid to advance the legislative agenda of the Realtors Association, when the mail advertising we did for them had absolutely nothing to do with legislation. As I told the reporter, this is an advertising client I have done work with for years. I invited her to call the ethics lawyer for the House, which she did. He told her I was in complete compliance with the law.
I carefully explained to the reporter that I go beyond what is required by law. I always pre-clear potential advertising clients with the ethics committee. When the reporter was unable to find anyone in state government to criticize me, she apparently contacted out-of-state “experts” who know nothing about South Carolina law and, based on whatever she told them, got them to question my ethics.
Virtually every point I made in my own defense (explaining the facts and the nature of my advertising business) was twisted or simply ignored.
To illustrate the point: When House Ethics Committee staff initially declined to speak to the reporter, I voluntarily waived my right to confidentiality and urged the ethics attorney to answer all her questions fully. She somehow neglected to mention that I had waived my right to confidentiality in the interest of complete transparency.
Perhaps the most outrageous part of the article dealt with the so-called “Point of Sale” legislation, which the reporter wrote: “benefitted the realtors financially.” Again, that is simply false. The House ethics attorney went to great length explaining to her that the legislation did not benefit realtors financially.
It is now clear why she was so interested in “Point of Sale.” She apparently thought the mail piece I had processed promoted that legislation. Again, she was wrong. The mail I processed was a simple piece about how realtors and the candidates they support help improve the “quality of life” for families. It had nothing to do with any pending legislation.
Frankly, it’s hard to understand why my advertising work has attracted so much attention.
The S.C. General Assembly includes lawyers who practice law before the judges they elect, and others who work directly for associations. There are insurance agents who oversee regulations for the industry they represent. There are teachers, professors and coaches who literally vote on their own pay when they vote “yes” on the state budget. There are barbers, tow truck owners, bankers, farmers, doctors, pharmacists and a wide range of other occupations. We all have to make a living in something other than the General Assembly.
It is ironic that my business is far more unrelated to the work of government than many members of the Legislature. And yet my business and I have been targeted for this assault. And here I am, fighting to defend the most important asset I own: my personal integrity.
In any world where fairness matters, the article published about me Sunday should not have been printed with such a false headline and such a disregard for balance.
So again I have to ask: Where do I go to get my reputation back?
I can only hope that my hometown paper, which I have read and enjoyed all my life, will not allow this type of character assassination to appear on its pages in future editions.
Jim Merrill, a Republican who lives on Daniel Island, represents portions of Berkeley and Charleston counties in the S.C. House of Representatives.