COLUMBIA, SC — When veteran federal prosecutor Mark Moore retired last month to go into private practice, he got a plaque from his colleagues which read in part:
“Takes no prisoners.”
Moore, 51, will take that reputation when he moves two blocks south from his former office on the fifth floor of Columbia’s U.S. Attorney’s office to the sixth floor of the Nexsen Pruet law firm. With some 200 lawyers, it is the second-largest firm headquartered in South Carolina.
“The thing I’m going to miss most – I know this sounds corny – is standing up before a jury and saying, ‘My name’s Mark Moore, and I represent the United States of America,” said Moore in a recent interview.
In 24 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, Moore was one of an elite group of trial prosecutors who worked with federal and state agents – including FBI, Secret Service, DEA, SLED and IRS – in many of South Carolina’s highest profile criminal cases.
Since 1989, in prosecuting well more than 1,000 defendants, Moore helped send assorted mobsters, crooked lawyers, Mexican drug cartel members, Gangsta Killa Bloods thugs, hit men, kidnappers and public officials to prison. Unlike state law enforcement where prosecutors usually enter a case after an arrest has been made, a federal prosecutor works with agents from the beginning of an investigation.
Public officials Moore helped send to prison included former Lee County Sheriff and drug kingpin E.J. Melvin, longtime Columbia city council member E.W. Cromartie for tax evasion and former S.C. Agriculture Commissioner of Agriculture Charlie Sharpe for a Hobbes Act violation.
Moore’s arsenal of powerful legal tools included undercover agents, the ability to get a court order to tap suspects’ phones or mike up an informant to secretly record conversations, subpoenas to get bank and IRS tax records and a host of experienced federal agents. One of his specialties: getting defendants to “flip” and provide evidence against others in return for a lighter sentence.
Moore grew up in Spartanburg County, attended Wofford on academic scholarship and graduated from University of South Carolina School of Law. His father was a letter carrier, and Moore was the first in his family to graduate from college. In 1989, former U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel hired Moore to prosecute drug cases; his career took off from there.
Earlier this month, Moore’s farewell party at former federal prosecutor Debbie Barbier’s house was attended by more than 100 people, including two federal judges – Judge Joe Anderson and Judge Cameron McGowan Currie – three magistrate judges, veteran FBI agent Rob Waizenhofer and Columbia veteran defense lawyer Jack Swerling.
“Moore is one of the best prosecutors I ever faced – talented, bright, aggressive. We had some epic courtroom battles and went at each other hard, but at the end of the day, we were always able to shake hands,” said Swerling. “I never questioned his word — very important in our business.”
Another veteran Columbia defense attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson, said of Moore, “He was one of the best-prepared and vigorous prosecutors in the history of the U.S. Attorney’s office. ‘Take no prisoners’ is a good way to describe him – it means your client is in deep trouble.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, whose investigators sometimes worked with FBI and other agencies on Moore-directed prosecutions said Moore “has been a friend to law enforcement and enemy to the bad guys. We were fortunate to have him as a prosecutor in South Carolina.”
Although neither Moore nor his new employer will discuss salary, people familiar with legal pay estimated his salary will double from about $140,000 a year to more than twice that in his first year as a private lawyer.
Although large corporate law firms like Nexsen Pruet once did little or no criminal work, in recent years many have added lawyers skilled in criminal work and who are familiar with the dynamics of federal investigations.
Earlier this month, for example, Columbia’s Nelson Mullins, the state’s largest corporate law firm, hired Washington, D.C., lawyer Sol Wisenberg– a nationally known white collar fraud litigator – to its white collar unit.
At Nexsen Pruet, Moore will be representing corporations and individuals facing possible charges of civil, criminal or regulatory wrongdoing, as well as handling internal investigations for companies.
“We just call it our white collar defense section,” said former 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Billy Wilkins, who leads the section and was instrumental in hiring Moore.
Part of Moore’s his job will be advising clients on how to comply with the law, but he is expected to be involved in trial work with companies facing charges of wrongdoing, Wilkins said.
Wilkins said his son, Walt Wilkins, Moore’s boss as former U.S. Attorney from 2008-2010, had described Moore one of the “superstars” in the office.
In the courtroom, Moore was known as a skilled cross-examiner, quick to recite the law and at times given to sarcasm in both his words and body language, colleagues said.
Outside court, Moore can “have his face lit up with a smile and a kind of twinkle in his eye – you wouldn’t think a guy with that sort of demeanor or visage would be the terrorizing prosecutor that he is, or was,” said Nexsen Pruet managing partner John Sowards, who had been courting off and on Moore for three years to come to work for him.
Moore’s trial experience was especially attractive to Nexsen Pruet, Sowards said. “Mark has tried some 75 full-blown trials – that’s a ton of experience.”
Nexsen Pruet’s business clients — who include companies like Boeing and Earth Fare healthy groceries — at times may need of someone like Moore to “help them stay on the right side of the regulations,” Sowards said. “Businesses in this country are heavily regulated, and some of those regulations have penalties, including criminal penalties attached to them.”
In recent months, Moore had a chance to take an early buyout from the Justice Department. And he was ready for something new.
“I was in that office 24 and a half years. I feel like I’ve prosecuted just every type of case there is,” Moore said. “I wanted to use my skills to represent individuals and entities for a change,” Moore said.
At the time he left, Moore was spearheading a three-year, still ongoing investigation into possible public corruption in the city of Columbia.
That investigation bore some of the hallmarks of a typical Moore case – the use of wiretaps and defendants who’ve turned informant to get lighter sentences. Although the probe has so far turned up no public corruption in Columbia, but it did lead to charges being brought against various S.C. State University officials.
Moore can be flexible.
“This hard-charging prosecutor actually has a heart of gold,” said longtime colleague assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Wicker said. “He’s been known to help defendants at sentencing when he found their situation compelling, he has been known to help defendants, to let the court know this person should not be hammered.”
Both qualities were on display in late November, when in his last courtroom appearance, Moore spoke at the sentencing of two drug dealers. Moore got one defendant who had cooperated with the government a lighter sentence; the other – who had repeatedly lied to the government – got an extra 10 years.
Moore, who is single, would often work “7 a.m. to midnight when on a case. Weekends to him were often nothing more than a quieter day at work. He lived and breathed this job and he did whatever it took,” Wicker said.
Moore said his philosophy was not to try to get “an extra pound of flesh” from a defendant but to be consistent. “I fought hard, but I fought fair.”
Moore said he expects to see his former colleagues across the courtroom. He said he hopes to have cordial relations with them, but added, “I plan to represent my clients to the fullest of my abilities.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.