COLUMBIA, S.C. (Legal Newsline) - Public opinion against South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster's taking of campaign contributions from lawyers he hired to represent the State on a contingency fee could be growing.
McMaster, in the middle of a run for governor, said he has no plans to return campaign donations from two attorneys he hired to sue Eli Lilly & Co. One newspaper in South Carolina recently wrote in an editorial that that isn't good enough.
"McMaster is about as savvy a politician as one might encounter. And in his run for governor, he will provide strong competition," says a Monday editorial in the Independent Mail of Anderson.
"But his denial that accepting contributions from attorneys that he hired to do business for the state is improper just doesn't sit right."
John White of Harrison White gave $2,000 to McMaster in 2008, and John Simmons of Simmons Law Firm in Columbia, S.C., gave McMaster $7,000 ($3,500 in 2006 and 2008). The two, along with Houston-based firm Bailey Perrin Bailey, are representing the State in the Lilly litigation.
McMaster's office and the state Ethics Commission have argued over a 1991 law that bars campaign contributions from contractors to the public officials who hired them. McMaster said the law doesn't apply to his office, and a motion by Eli Lilly attorneys to disqualify the attorneys was denied by a state judge.
Other members of Harrison White who gave to McMaster include: Danny Smith ($2,000 in 2007 and $2,000 in 2008); Ben Harrison ($2,000 in 2007); and Donald Coggins ($3,500 in 2006).
The firm itself gave McMaster $3,500 in both 2006 and 2008.
In Aug. 2006, McMaster announced the State was filing suit against several pharmaceutical companies and seeking more than $40 million. Each in-state attorney has contributed to his campaign fund.
The companies sued were Abbott Laboratories, Baxter International, Dey, Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane and Schering-Plough.
Two out-of-state firms were contracted -- Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery, Ala., and President Barack Obama's former employer Miner, Barnhill & Galland of Chicago.
Of the in-state counsel, Stephen Schmutz of Schmutz & Schmutz in Charleston donated $3,500 to McMaster in 2008, as did Kate Schmutz. The firm also gave McMaster $3,500. Pete Strom of Columbia gave $3,500 in 2008, while T. English McCutchen of Columbia gave $3,500 in 2006 and Mike Kelly of Columbia gave $1,000 the same year.
McMaster is one of five GOP candidates seeking to replace Gov. Mark Sanford in next year's election.
"(T)his is just the kind of issue that can blow up in a candidate's face," the editorial says.
"McMaster should return the contributions, which are but a tiny fraction of the money in his war chest, to avoid the appearance of impropriety - which can often be more distracting than an impropriety itself."
A South Carolina political blog has also denounced McMaster's actions.
"McMaster - who has been raking in the trial lawyer money in his gubernatorial campaign - must have other contributions that fit this description, otherwise why would he make such a stink over a measly $7,000?" an entry on Fitsnews.com, which was created by South Carolina political consultant Will Folks, formerly Sanford's press secretary.
Folks left the office before pleading guilty to criminal domestic violence.
"Or maybe it's a future tense thing - like he's hoping in the months ahead to rake in some major bank from attorneys he's hired in the past. Either way, it's wrong - which is why there's a law against it."
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.