One of the highest-profile gatherings of South Carolina attorneys, prosecutors and judges is taking place this week in Myrtle Beach, S.C. – an influential schmooze-fest which in previous years has borne witness to all manner of feting and favor-trading.
And some hardcore drunkenness and debauchery, too …
Why should you care about “lawyers on holiday?”
You shouldn’t necessarily, but regular readers of this news outlet are well aware the wheels of justice in the Palmetto state start moving – or grind to an abrupt halt – based on who you know. And one of the best places to “get known” is the S.C. Solicitors’ Annual Conference.
This year’s event – which began on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at the Embassy Suites at Kingston Plantation (9800 Queensway Boulevard) – bears little resemblance to the wide open gatherings held in the past, though. Aside from the specter of Covid-19, the conference has seen its reputation for Rabelaisian behavior ramp down considerably in recent years.
“There’s too many people with cell phones and spleens to vent,” one conference attendee told me. “Nobody wants to wind up on FITSNews.”
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For the record, I don’t “go there,” people … but even if I did, a source attending this year’s gathering has reliably informed me the list of individuals engaging in various and sundry extracurriculars is “lame.”
“So far,” they added.
More to the point, there is a discernible pall hanging over this year’s gathering: A nervous, accumulating weight hovering atmospherically over hundreds of hushed whispers exchanged in hotel hallways, lounge bars, poolside recliners and ocean view balconies.
“Did you hear?”
“Can you believe it?”
Similarly, instant messages on assorted “vanishing” apps have been bouncing from device to device as screen captures of the latest news reports, social media chatroom gossip or text message exchanges fire like synapses from device to device, further hard-wiring various elements of a building narrative into the collective consciousness of the state’s legal community.
“Did you see?”
“Look at this …”
All of these whispered exchanges and thumb-tapped missives refer, of course, to the ongoing collapse of one of the Palmetto State’s most influential legal dynasties, the Murdaughs of Hampton county. Indeed, the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ true crime saga – an assortment of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits tied to at least five deaths and potentially tens of millions of dollars in graft – seems to be continually escalating, with numerous new national takes being offered up in the hopes of illuminating this still-uncoiling, decidedly unsolved mystery.
In the last few days alone, The Wall Street Journal and CNN have done deep dives into the Murdaughs – and there’s another in-depth piece coming soon from The New York Times, I am reliably informed. Oh, there’s even a Nancy Grace bit – if you’re into that sort of thing.
While the national outlets continue pulling the lens back on the story, the drama on the ground ascended to an even higher energy level over the weekend with the filing of this exclusive report detailing ties between 53-year-old Alex Murdaugh – the disgraced attorney at the center of this made-for-Hollywood implosion – and an alleged drug smuggler named Barrett T. Boulware.
More … much more … is coming on that front.
But while news director Mandy Matney and I continue diving down dozens of rabbit holes related to this story, there are also process pieces in need of writing. One of them? The vanishing political clout of the Murdaugh family and the law firm it founded – Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED).
This family – which obviously has not always (often?) used its influence for good – has been an institution in South Carolina legal circles for decades. Regular readers are well aware that three generations of Murdaughs – Randolph Murdaugh Sr., Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. and Randolph Murdaugh III – served as solicitor for the S.C. fourteenth judicial circuit, a five-county region which encompasses broad swaths of the rural Palmetto Lowcounty.
Randolph Murdaugh Sr. served as solicitor from 1920 until his death in a car crash in 1940. Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. held the role from 1940 until his retirement in 1986. And Randolph Murdaugh III held the office from 1986 until his retirement in 2006.
Until earlier this year, Alex Murdaugh carried a badge as an assistant for current solicitor Duffie Stone, who was elected in 2006 with the Murdaughs’ financial support and imprimatur.
“Nobody in any of those counties got elected or appointed without the Murdaughs’ approval,” a source close to the family told me recently.
And no one got charged – or cleared – without the Murdaughs’ signing off.
Meanwhile, PMPED emerged as a regional powerhouse by adeptly exploiting the Palmetto State’s erstwhile “friendly venue” courtroom statues, which transformed Hampton county into one of America’s most notorious “judicial hellholes.” The firm earned big judgments from multiple corporate defendants – most notably CSX, a Jacksonville, Florida based national rail carrier. Indeed, PMPED’s three-story brick headquarters in Hampton is often referred to as the “house CSX built.”
South Carolina’s venue statutes were changed in 2005, thankfully, making it much harder for plaintiffs’ attorneys to go “jury-shopping” for big judgments.
(Click to view)
(Via: Murdaugh Family)
Still, PMPED continued to exert outsized influence in the Lowcountry – and remained widely known for its high-dollar wining and dining of Palmetto State judges, several of whom have found themselves under the microscope in the aftermath of the Murdaugh saga.
Also under the microscope? The corrupt process by which these judges are appointed to their positions …
Anyway, PMPED was a major player at another big judicial gathering held annually in the Palmetto State – the S.C. Association for Justice (SCAJ) conference. As recently as last year, in fact, the firm hosted one of its exclusive invitation-only “judge’s dinners” at the SCAJ conference – which is held annually on Hilton Head Island.
PMPED has wielded extensive influence over this group for decades, and a former PMPED attorney – Bert “Skip” Utsey – was recently named president of the association, which bills itself as South Carolina’s “largest association of lawyers.”
Held on the first night of the conference each year, the PMPED “judge’s dinner” was an incredibly coveted invitation for members of the South Carolina bench to receive.
“They spent thousands of dollars wining and dining the judges,” one attendee noted. “And their families.”
Circuit court judges, appeals court judges – even justices of the S.C. supreme court – were on the invitation list.
According to sources familiar with the gathering, the firm would transport the judges and their dates via chartered buses to the nicest restaurants on Hilton Head Island each year on the very first night of the SCAJ conference.
“Was always such a smelly tradition,” one source recalled, noting the potential for influence peddling.
“The judges loved it, though,” the source added. “The best wine and the best food. It was a big deal.”
Was a big deal …
This year, PMPED did not host such a dinner … leaving multiple judges to fret over the lack of invites. Alex Murdaugh did attend the SCAJ conference last month, but he wasn’t wining and dining anyone. In fact, sources who saw him described him as “vacant,” “hollow” and “looking like a ghost.”
They should probably not expect PMPED to wine and dine them next year, either. In addition to the multiple criminal and civil cases swirling around Alex Murdaugh and his family, the firm is the focus of an ongoing investigation by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – the agency leading all of the Murdaugh-related criminal inquiries.
Launched on September 13, the investigation involving the law firm purports to determine whether Alex Murdaugh “misappropriated funds in connection to his position” at PMPED. In the aftermath of a bizarre roadside shooting involving Murdaugh on September 4, 2021, PMPED hastily accused him of absconding with more than $10 million from its coffers – however the firm’s ongoing efforts to distance itself from the disgraced attorney have fallen on deaf ears.
Worth recalling? PMPED never requested SLED to conduct its investigation into the firm’s finances – the agency launched it on its own. Sources familiar with the nascent probe have told me it could soon metastasize into a much broader graft and corruption inquiry – one impacting numerous law firms, financial institutions and public officials. And judges.
Meanwhile, inside the “House CSX Built,” the fall of the House of Murdaugh is taking its toll …
“Paralegals and staff are crying – from stress and tension,” one insider told me. “All are working tremendous overtime (and) everyone is suspicious of everyone else.”
You don’t say …
Stay tuned … the collapse is only going to pick up momentum in the coming weeks and months as this saga approaches terminal velocity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that San Diego Padres’ lid pictured above).
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