SC court to hear challenge to $75 million attorney general’s fee

Did SC Attorney General Alan Wilson have the authority to award $75 million in legal fees to two Columbia law firms for legal work involving the removal and storage of weapons-grade plutonium on the Savannah River website?

That issue — which highlights the large sums of money that private law firms working for the attorney general’s office can earn — is up for grabs in state Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The hearing pits attorneys for John Crangle and the SC Public Interest Foundation against attorneys for Wilson and the two law firms — the firm of Willoughby & Hoefer and Davidson, Wren & DeMasters — to which he paid $75 million.

The $75 million attorney’s fees came from a $600 million payment the federal government agreed to make to South Carolina in August 2020. The $600 million matched the amount the federal government had said he would pay South Carolina in exchange for releasing about 10 metric tons of weapons-grade radioactive plutonium from the Savannah River site through 2035.

“The amount of the fee is patently unreasonable and cannot be paid until approved by court order,” said a brief for Crangle, a Columbia ethics attorney, and the foundation.

Their brief said Wilson’s private attorneys made “no findings: no interrogations, no depositions, no experts, no requests for documents.”

And the settlement was not the result of the legal work of the two law firms, the brief claimed.

This agreement was only reached because of a political agreement negotiated with the federal government at the time by the state’s elected leaders, including Governor Henry McMaster and United States Senator Lindsey Graham, according to the brief filed. by Cangle and the foundation.

But both firms say they did a lot of legal work on the case and it was their legal work that caused the political pressure that settled the case in August 2020.

“If this litigation had not taken place, South Carolina would be half a billion dollars poorer and there would have been no enforceable timetable for the disposal of the highly radioactive plutonium stored at the site of Savannah River,” the law firm Davidson said.

$75M attorney fees for SRS settlement go to court

The private attorneys won the $75 million “through the prosecution of four cases in three separate federal trial courts, three separate federal appeals courts, and a petition to the United States Supreme Court…”, said a brief filed by Willoughby Law. solidify.

Moreover, the $75 million fee was not excessive, as it was an amount prescribed by a formula in a contract the law firms had with Wilson’s office, according to the brief. The contract stipulated that the companies would be entitled to 12.5% ​​of the amount recovered. Given that the amount recovered by the state was $600 million, this meant costs of $75 million.

The law firms’ briefs also cite four legal ethics experts — including current University of South Carolina Law School professor Michael Virzi and retired USC professor emeritus Nathan Crystal — as said the 12.5% ​​rate was “reasonable”.

But Crangle and the foundation argue that Wilson shouldn’t have sole authority to award a contract that would result in $75 million in compensation — money ‘for the sole benefit of the state’ — to law firms. private lawyers. Wilson needed specific permission from a court, the General Assembly or a settlement agreement allowing him to do so, they argue.

A key legal issue in the case is not the amount of the costs or Wilson’s authority to distribute $75 million. It’s about whether Crangle and the foundation have what’s called “standing.”

By law, a party bringing a lawsuit must have “standing,” or be able to show that they have been affected in some way by the issue at hand.

“Standing” may also be granted to those who can demonstrate the “public importance” of a matter, meaning that the matter involves the conduct of public bodies, the expenditure of public funds, and whether the situation is likely to recur, according to Cangle and the foundation’s brief.

“The appellants should have status of public importance because this dispute involves a challenge to the Attorney General’s unauthorized expenditure of public funds, and a resolution of this dispute is necessary for future guidance,” Crangle and the foundation lawsuit.

The law firms and Wilson asserted, however, that the issues in dispute are not eligible to grant ‘standing’ to Crangle and the foundation, arguing that ‘standing may not be granted to any person who has a grievance against a public official Otherwise, public officials would be subject to numerous lawsuits to the detriment of both judicial economy and the absence of frivolous lawsuits.

In January 2021, Circuit Judge Kirk Griffin ruled that Crangle and the foundation, which had filed a lawsuit against Wilson and the two law firms, did not have “standing”. Griffin dismissed the lawsuit, declining to rule on any other issues, including whether the fees were excessive or had been properly remitted to the law firms.

But Crangle and the foundation appealed the judge’s ruling, saying the case should be dealt with under the “public importance” exception.

Cangle and the foundation also said that Wilson sped the transfer of the $75 million to the law firms at the end of September 2020, knowing that a hearing was scheduled to hear arguments on whether the money should be transferred.

Critics of the $75 million payment to the two law firms included McMaster, which has publicly stated that it could not approve Wilson’s payment of $75 million in legal fees because the settlement did not result from the work. of lawyers, but of the labor of state congressmen, the writ mentioned.

Anyway, Cangleit’s and the foundation’s brief said, “Wilson didn’t need to hire a private attorney to sort out a relatively simple issue that elected leaders eventually negotiated.”

Law firm attorneys include two lawmakers — State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland — John Simmons and Ken Woodington. Wilson is represented by the Attorney General’s top appellate counsel, Emory Smith and Robert Cook.

Crangle and the foundation are represented by Columbia attorney Jim Griffin (no relation to Judge Griffin) and Greenville attorney Jim Carpenter, an expert on standing issues of public importance.

John Monk has covered the courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A US Army veteran who covered the US invasion of Panama in 1989, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death sentence trials, including those of Charleston church killer Dylann Roof, serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and child killer Tim Jones. Monk’s hobbies include hiking, books, languages, music and more.

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