SOUTH CAROLINA ATTORNEY GENERAL UNDER FIRE … AGAIN
There’s a hard-hitting story in SC Lawyers Weekly this week criticizing S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson – who is already under considerable fire for allegations of selective prosecution in pursuit of public corruption.
The story – written by reporter Phillip Bantz – deals with Wilson’s office using private law firms on a contingency fee basis to sue deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies.
According to the report, Wilson’s office isn’t the only attorney general’s office in America running this racket – but it is the only one taking a cut of the fees it rakes in from these judgments.
Last week, Cephalon Inc. settled a case that, in part, sought to answer the following question …
Should the attorney general be allowed to hire private lawyers on a contingency fee basis to do the state’s bidding and then take a cut of the firm’s fee after the dust of litigation settles?
Um, no. He should not.
In fact there’s no part of these contingency fee arrangements – which in the Cephalon case accrued to the direct financial benefit of current S.C. House minority leader Todd Rutherford – that don’t give us heartburn.
Bantz’s report extensively quoted James Copland of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research – who referred to these prosecutorial arrangements as the “paradigmatic examples of shakedowns.”
“These companies are going to have to spend millions of dollars if they try to defend themselves and that’s money they won’t get back even if they were to win,” he told Bantz. “So if you’re going to spend $6 million on your defense, you might as well pay $6 million to settle and walk away.”
There’s also the taxpayer component to consider.
If the state loses these cases, it’s your money walking out the door. If they “win,” the money gets routed into a slush fund for the attorney general’s exclusive use.
Since 2002, an estimated $36.5 million has been paid into this fund – which is not part of the state’s general fund (i.e. not subject to legislative appropriation). While most of the money went to salaries and benefits for government employees, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been routed less-than-transparently to things like “other professional services.”
This process strikes us as fundamentally wrong on multiple levels. It’s also unbecoming of an attorney general who spent his first term in office railing against public corruption.
Alan Wilson wants to be the next governor of South Carolina – and he’s staked his claim to this destiny on being an Eliot Ness-style “Untouchable” committed to rooting out rampant self-dealing at the S.C. State House.
Unfortunately, he’s not only failing to root out such self-dealing … he’s apparently got some ethically dubious arrangements of his own to answer for.