COLUMBIA —The special prosecutor in the Statehouse corruption probe said suspended state Rep. Jim Merrill's case is different from the politicians who preceded him.
David Pascoe told a judge that Merrill's case involves taking money at the same time he was acting as a lawmaker.
That means it is different from former House Speaker Bobby Harrell's and other ethics cases, including former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard's and former Sen. Robert Ford's. All improperly used personal campaign funds.
"This is a case that deals with public trust," Pascoe said in court Thursday.
Pascoe's comment came as a Richland County judge set a $146,000 personal recognizance bond for Merrill, R-Charleston, in his first court appearance since he was hit with 30 ethics-related charges last week.
Circuit Judge Knox McMahon said the amount mirrors the maximum fines Merrill could face if found guilty. He faces a maximum 66 years in prison as well.
Merrill, 49, does not have to put up the cash immediately but would forfeit the amount if he fails to show for court appearances. By granting a PR bond, the judge determined Merrill does not pose a threat to the community and is not considered a flight risk.
The indictments allege Merrill, who lives on Daniel Island, used his office and his consulting firm Geechie Communications to garner more than $1 million from trade groups and companies since 2002 at a time when he was both a lawmaker and a consultant across several platforms.
Merrill is the first lawmaker that Pascoe, a Democrat who is the 1st Circuit solicitor from Summerville, has accused of unethical behavior since he took down Harrell in 2014 for his misuse of campaign funds. Harrell pledged to work with investigators, as part of his plea deal, to uncover additional corruption within the Statehouse.
Merrill is 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.
"(Merrill) told SLED that he gave an honest markup of 10 to 12 percent," Pascoe said. "The evidence we have shows the markup was more like 50, 75 and sometimes over 100 percent, which is in excess of fair market value."
Pascoe said additional evidence shows that when Merrill was the House majority leader, from 2005 to 2009, he failed to disclose the caucus' operating account finances, "so people wouldn’t know how much he directed to his company when he was majority leader."
Another area Pascoe mentioned as he listed some of his evidence is an alleged money-laundering scheme involving Merrill, his business and his brother John Denver Merrill's company Pluff Mud LLC. Pascoe said $148,693.27 was laundered to Merrill from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to influence budget dollars appropriated from a parks, recreation and tourism-related subcommittee Merrill chaired.
"(It was) then laundered back to his company, every penny, even down to the 27 cents," Pascoe said.
Merrill's legal team, however, has called the charges flawed and indicated they planned to fight the allegations. Charleston attorneys Matt Hubbell and Merrill's close friend state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, flanked their client during the court appearance and said the charges were misunderstandings.
"He’s eager to present numerous legal and factual defenses to each and every one of these charges," Hubbell said. "We believe they’re based on very fundamental misunderstandings of the law."
Hubbell said they have not seen the evidence Pascoe mentioned.
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.
Merrill did not enter a plea and did not speak during the proceedings.
Outside the courtroom, John Crangle, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said the Statehouse caucuses serve a legitimate purpose but have become "slush funds" of money that need stronger regulation.
"They (lawmakers) put pressure on special interests to give the caucuses money and the next thing you know the money is converted into (campaign) fund money," Crangle said.
Because of the recently filed charges and expectations that others will be named in the ongoing investigation, Crangle hopes citizens demand tougher ethics reform from lawmakers, something he believes will be forthcoming in the session that begins Jan. 10.
"I think if (Lt. Gov. Henry) McMaster comes in, he's going to push it pretty hard," Crangle said of when McMaster replaces Gov. Nikki Haley who is expected to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "I think he has a good relationship with the legislative leadership, and I think we'll probably get some major reforms passed in this session of the Legislature coming up in 2017."