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Legislative Ethics Violations May Be Big Or Small But Not Black And White
12/21/2016 3:48:46 PM

Jim Merrill
By Barney Blakeney

Daniel Island State Rep. James Merrill may not have many friends on the state ethics commission; he’s made some friends among South Carolina black legislators who say he’s been a supportive of issues relevant to black constituents.

And they add there’s little comparison between Merrill’s ethics woes and those that toppled former Charleston Senator Robert Ford.

Merrill was indicted last week on some 30 charges of ethics violations. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 and currently serves as House Majority Leader. He followed former House Speaker Robert ‘Bobby’ Harrell as the second most powerful local legislator to be indicted for ethics violations. Harrell was indicted and resigned in 2013.

Ford was indicted in 2012 for ethics violations as well and resigned the seat he held nearly 20 years the following year. But while Harrell’s and Merrill’s violations involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, Ford’s violations centered on an amount less than $50,000.

Georgetown Rep. Carl Anderson, chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus said the allegations that tag Merrill as receiving over $1 million through various ethics violations are unfortunate, but added Merrill has stood with the caucus and its members on issues that benefit black constituents.

“He has a heart for the people and has stood with us and voted for relevant issues such as college trustee appointments, judgeships and support for the International African American Museum. We count him among the legislators who support Lowcountry constituents,” Anderson said.

Merrill got moral support from black legislators closer to home as well. Merrill’s indictment caught many local legislators by surprise said one legislator who did not want to be identified. Speaking anonymously, he said while allegations Merrill took money as compensation for political favors crosses ethical lines, the state’s ethics rules are so pliable, ultimately they may be bent in Merrill’s favor.

Merrill could be exonerated, he speculated.

While white legislators such as Harrell and Merrill were caught with their hands in the cookie jar to the tune of substantially more than Ford or Spartanburg Rep. Harold Mitchell who in 2011 was investigated and fined by the ethics commission, the legislator stopped short of saying black legislators are targeted by the commission. He added however that more legislators might find themselves in the commission’s crosshairs if their records are examined. The amounts of the infractions may vary between white legislators and black legislators, but significantly more legislators are guilty of violations than have been indicted, he said.

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