On Wednesday, South Carolina Supreme Court justices questioned an attorney for SC Attorney General Alan Wilson on whether Wilson should have paid $75 million to two private law firms for their alleged work involving plutonium at the Savannah River site.
Wilson paid the law firms the $75 million in 2020 after a lawsuit was filed challenging the charges, the timing of which was questionable, Associate Judge John Cannon Few told attorney John Simmons. representing Wilson, during the hour-plus hearing.
“This (prompt payment) troubles me deeply,” said Few, who said Wilson seemed to have thought, “I have to sneak around the fact that this lawsuit might be successful and go ahead and pour those funds into the account in trust from a private law firm so that it is unrecoverable.
The attorneys’ share of $75 million that was wired to the firms instead of a check came from a $600 million payment the federal government agreed to make to South Carolina in August 2020. The 600 million dollars was the amount the federal government announced it would pay South Carolina. in exchange for leaving approximately 10 metric tons of weapons-grade highly radioactive plutonium at the Savannah River site until 2035.
Wilson’s prompt payment to private attorneys before a lower court judge could rule on the case underscores the importance of the issues discussed at Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing, Few said. at Simons.
“We very respectfully very strongly disagree with the characterization,” Simmons replied to Few.
Chief Justice Donald Beatty considered another case.
He said the law requires the $600 million recovered by Wilson’s lawyers — which included the $75 million fee — to be paid to the state. general nand. But the $600 million went to Wilson, who quickly handed over $75 million to private law firms Willoughby & Hoefer and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters.
“Those funds never got there (in the general fund),” Beatty said. “That’s what the law requires.”
Simmons disagreed, arguing that Wilson followed different legal guidelines that allowed him to distribute $75 million directly to private attorneys..
Judges impose Wilson’s $75 million fee on law firms
The specific issue before the judges on Wednesday was whether a private citizen — John Crangle, a Columbia lawyer — had the right to bring a lawsuit against Wilson challenging the charges under a provision of the statute known as the standard name “of public importance”.
Ordinarily, a private citizen does not have the right to sue the Attorney General for one of the many decisions he and his office make each year. However, if a citizen convinces a court that the matter is of sufficient public interest and that the Attorney General could repeat a dubious and possibly illegal action, a court could grant that citizen “standing to sue” or the right to sue. action.
In that case, Crangle and the SC Public Interest Foundation sued Wilson and the two law firms before the money was paid by Wilson to the firms. In January 2021, Trial Judge Kirk Griffin ruled on Crangle and the foundation lacked standing. They appealed on the issue of standing.
If Crangle and the SC Public Interest Foundation win their appeal, the case may return to a lower court for a trial on the merits. That could include questions about the amount of the fee and whether Wilson followed the law in giving the $75 million to the law firms so quickly and whether he followed state laws in doing so.
The Supreme Court could also set guidelines for the Attorney General’s office requiring it to limit future fees paid to private attorneys, how those fees should be approved, and how settlement money should be managed a once it is received. The Attorney General’s office has half a dozen other fee agreements with private law firms in ongoing cases.
Jim Carpenter, the attorney who argued the case for Crangle and the foundation, told judges Wednesday that Wilson should have gotten court approval for the $75 million settlement before giving it to the two law firms. lawyers, but did not.
Simmons said that under the agreement Wilson had with the private law firms, he did not need an explicit court order approving the $75 million going to the private law firms.
“There is no constitutional requirement (that) there be court approval,” Simmons said.
Associate Justice Kaye Hearn reminded Simmons that Governor Henry McMaster also questioned Wilson’s action.
McMaster’s letter, written to Wilson in August 2020, told Wilson that the $75 million was grossly excessive and claimed that the state congressional delegation, not Wilson’s private attorneys, had done much of the work. final work that resulted in the settlement.
At the time, Wilson and the two companies disagreed, saying the private companies’ work directly enabled politicians to lobby for a $600 million settlement from the US Department of Energy. .
“The governor is not a party to this,” Simmons said.
Hearn also asked Simmons who drafted the fee agreement between Wilson and the two private law firms.
Simmons said he didn’t know.
Simmons also urged the judges not to issue a ruling that would “permit every citizen” to file a lawsuit protesting fees paid to private attorneys by the attorney general.
But few told him there were only seven outstanding cases, including this one, currently being handled by private attorneys hired by Wilson.
“Seven cases don’t open the floodgates,” Few told Simmons. “One of the issues we have in South Carolina is that our judges sit idly by, especially coming out of the pandemic. We have a lot of judicial resources to deal with seven cases.
Law firm attorneys include two lawmakers: Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. Wilson is represented by the attorney general’s office’s top appellate attorneys, Emory Smith and Robert Cook. Malloy and Rutherford were in court on Wednesday.
Crangle and the foundation are represented by Carpenter and Columbia attorney Jim Griffin (no relation to Judge Griffin).