The Merrill case brings up memories of Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who faced ethics charges, censure, and possible impeachment for using public funds to visit his mistress in Argentina.
How is this for irony? Sanford served in the U.S. House of Representatives at roughly the same time as former Alabama governor Bob Riley. In fact, Sanford told the press that months before his affair became public, he had sought counsel from the controversial C Street religious organization known as The Family or The Fellowship. Riley has acknowledged having connections to The Family, and both the former governor and his son, Rob, are associates and political allies of . . . John Merrill.
We broke the Merrill story last Thursday after al.com reporter Kyle Whitmire admitted in a column that he had court documents related to an unnamed politician's extramarital affair and chose not to report on them. Multiple sources sent us copies of the court documents, from a Tuscaloosa County divorce case styled Bryan Scott Brinyark v. Mildred Murphree Brinyark, in which Millie Brinyark testifies about her affair with John Merrill.
Whitmire engaged his readers in a debate around the question, "When is it OK to out a public official or expose a politician's infidelity?" But he apparently ignored evidence that the Merrill story might be about more than infidelity.
We don't have the full Millie Brinyark deposition, but what we do have indicates she was forced to resign as a teacher, in part because she engaged in extramarital activities on school time and school property. She eventually went to work for an after-school program run by John Merrill, in his position with the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education. From page 313 of the deposition, which is embedded at the end of this post:
Q: So you had to actually resign?
Q: And then it was two or three years later that you began to work with the after school program?
Q: And that's the after school program that was run by John Merrill?
That testimony raises all kinds of questions, including . . .
* Did John Merrill use public funds to do a favor for his mistress?
* Did the two of them reach an illegal "quid pro quo," a something-for-something deal, in which she would get the job in exchange for staying quiet about the affair?
* Do Tuscaloosa County schools receive federal funds? If so, could this invoke federal jurisdiction if an investigation commences?
* Did other applicants, who perhaps were more qualified than Ms. Brinyark, not get a job that would have been theirs in a fair search?
* Did other applicants, who perhaps came with less baggage than Ms. Brinyark, not get a job that would have been theirs in a fair search?
Could this get serious? Well, let's consider the case of Mark Sanford, who can't seem to stay out of trouble. In December 2014, multiple news outlets reported that Sanford (now back in Congress) and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory accepted six-figure stock payouts from Tree.com, an online mortgage broker accused by regulators of deceiving its customers. One article on that scandal reported on the outcome of Sanford's previous trials:
Sanford joined the Tree.com board in April 2012 after finishing his term as South Carolina governor in a cloud of ethical questions, having been forced to pay $74,000 to settle 37 state ethics charges, including using taxpayer funds to pay for flights to Argentina to visit his mistress.
Wikipedia provides more details about the fallout of Sanford's affair:
On June 24, 2009, Sanford resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, after he publicly revealed that he had engaged in an affair with María Belén Chapur, an Argentine woman. . . . He was later censured by the South Carolina General Assembly following a State Ethics Commission investigation into allegations that he had misused state travel funds to conduct his affair.
Before reaching that conclusion, the Sanford case involved a lengthy criminal investigation in South Carolina, ending when the state attorney decided not to press charges. Will the John Merrill scandal follow a similar path? It's too early to say, but evidence suggests that questions about sex might eventually be the least of Merrill's concerns.