May 19, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Current, former lawyer-legislators’ firms to share fees in $300M settlement

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Gavel on Money

By RICK BRUNDRETT

In announcing last month that the state is expected to receive more than $300 million from a national opioid settlement, S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson said the money will provide “much-needed financial resources which will help combat South Carolina’s opioid epidemic.”

What wasn’t mentioned then is that part of the proceeds will go to at least six law firms with ties to current or former state lawmakers, according to information provided to The Nerve by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO).

Of South Carolina’s $300 million-plus share of the total $26 billion national settlement, to be paid out over 18 years starting this year, at least $24 million, or 8% of the state’s proceeds, would be split among law firms representing the state, all 46 counties and 43 municipalities.

“In fact, the majority of that 8% amount will be going to city and county lawyers,” Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle said in a recent written response to The Nerve, noting his office didn’t have “anything to do with choosing the lawyers for the cities and counties,” and that the attorneys will be paid over seven years.

“The law firms involved will be required to agree to a distribution among themselves,” Kittle also said, “and the fees ultimately paid to any law firm retained by our Office must be approved by the Attorney General before they are paid,” though he didn’t know specific amounts that any particular firm would receive.

Kittle provided The Nerve with a partial list of 12 in- or out-of-state law firms participating in the settlement, four of which have ties to the following current or former state lawmakers:

*Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the powerful budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee and a partner in the Sumter-based Smith Robinson law firm. The city and county of Sumter are participating in the settlement, according to information from Kittle.

*Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, founder of the Stavrinakis Law Firm in Charleston and also a member of the Ways and Means Committee. The city and county of Charleston are part of the settlement.

*Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, of the Senn Legal firm in Charleston, who serves on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee. In a written response Thursday to The Nerve, Senn said she represents Charleston, North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and Summerville in the settlement, though she didn’t know how much of the proceeds the municipalities will receive. “We are taking only a 10 percent fee,” she noted.

*Former Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor and is an attorney in the Camden firm of Savage, Royall & Sheheen, along with his uncle, former Rep. Bob Sheheen. Kershaw County is part of the settlement.

In addition, Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who is a Senate Medical Affairs Committee member and an attorney in the Mt. Pleasant office of the Motley Rice firm, and former Rep. I.S. Leevy Johnson, a partner in the Johnson, Toal and Battiste firm, were hired by Wilson in 2019 in a civil case against the three major pharmaceutical distributors in the national settlement: Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp., and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., according to a “litigation retention” agreement provided earlier by the AGO to The Nerve under the state’s open-records law.

Besides the three distributors, drugmaker Johnson & Johnson also is a party in the national settlement.

The Nerve on Thursday sent written messages to Kimpson, Senn, Smith and Stavrinakis asking them which municipalities or counties their firms represent, how much work they did on the case, and whether their participation posed potential conflicts of interests as lawmakers. Besides serving on the Ways and Means Committee, Smith and Stavrinakis also are House Ethics Committee members.

Only Senn responded to The Nerve’s inquiries.

“I am involved directly because I feel very strongly that opioids and synthetic opioids are killing people in incredulous numbers, and they are mostly young people,” she said in her written response.

There were 1,734 total drug overdose deaths in South Carolina in 2020 – nearly three times the number in 2011 – 1,400 of which involved opioids, state Department of Health and Environmental Control records show.

Asked whether she had a potential conflict of interest in the opioid settlement as a senator, Senn replied, “Remember that I have represented those entities (the four municipalities) and other state entities for 30 years, so this has nothing to do with my senatorial duties.”

Senn also said she was selected to represent the cities “because of my history of defending them at a very low rate (usually $145 an hour),” and that “other members of my firm are working on the case.”

Other legislative ties

The Nerve last year revealed that since 2017, Wilson had hired at least six current or former lawyer-legislators to handle certain civil cases, including Smith, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, which approves the first legislative version of the annual state budget, including funding for Wilson’s office.

For example, Smith and Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who also serves on Ways and Means and is a partner in the Bannister, Wyatt & Stalvey law firm in Greenville, were hired in 2019 in a civil case involving unnamed pharmacy benefit managers, who allegedly were “manipulating the prices, fees, and access to prescription drugs” in the state, records show.

Asked why Wilson hired current and former attorney-lawmakers, Wilson spokesman Kittle in a written response said then they were retained because they were “the ones who brought the cases to us,” and that their ties to the Legislature “played no role in hiring them.”

From fiscal 2019 through fiscal 2020, the AGO settled 20 civil cases totaling $41 million, nearly $9 million of which was kept by the AGO, as The Nerve reported then. Most of those settlement proceeds were transferred to the state general fund, and only one outside law firm hired by the AGO received fees.

In 2019, The Nerve revealed that the AGO over the previous four fiscal years settled a total of 33 civil cases for nearly $210 million, $40 million of which collectively went to the AGO and outside law firms hired in the cases.

Wilson in 2020 announced a $600 million settlement with the federal government over weapons-grade plutonium storage at the Savannah River Site, publicly touting the deal as the “single largest settlement in South Carolina history.” But he was criticized for approving a collective $75 million in legal fees out of the settlement to two Columbia-based law firms, one of which he worked for before he was first elected as attorney general in 2010.

Nerve intern Charlotte Morrison contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

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