GREENVILLE - Walt Wilkins, the federal government's top prosecutor in South Carolina, said he will leave the U.S. Attorney's Office Jan. 10 after leading what he believes were effective law enforcement efforts against gangs and white-collar crime in the state.
Wilkins, 35, a Greenville native, said he will go into private law practice here - and is keeping his options on a political career open.
President Barack Obama recently nominated Columbia attorney William Nettles to succeed Wilkins as the next U.S. attorney for South Carolina. Nettles must win Senate confirmation.
Wilkins said he has sent a letter to the president and Attorney General Eric Holder indicating his intent to resign now that Obama has made his selection.
In 2008, Wilkins was nominated by President Bush as the 49th federal prosecutor for the district of South Carolina. Wilkins subsequently received Senate approval.
"When I came on as U.S. attorney, two of my main priorities were violent crime and gangs and white-collar (crime)," he told The Greenville News.
"We've done a lot of fantastic cases around the state" taking on those issues, he said.
Federal prosecutors in South Carolina have dismantled some "very serious and violent gangs" through coordination and cooperation with local law enforcement agencies, Wilkins said.
Prosecutors in recent months also battled an international drug ring working in the state, indicting 109 people and obtaining wiretaps on 29 phones, he said.
"I realize that with budget cuts and manpower cuts and tough economic times that all law enforcement - federal, state, local - have to work together," he said.
"One of his goals was to enhance the relationship between the state, local and federal authorities, and he accomplished that," said S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a former U.S. attorney. "He's been a partner with me and others around the state in criminal matters and has been very successful."
Wilkins cautioned the prosecutors' work is far from finished.
South Carolina still has "all kinds" of gangs, including nationally affiliated groups, motorcycle gangs and local groups in designated to specific neighborhoods, Wilkins said. A serious problem is the recruitment of students in middle school, high school and even elementary school "where individuals are exposed to the gang lifestyle at a very early age," he said.
Wilkins said while the public doesn't fully understand the extent of the gang problem in South Carolina, "Law enforcement certainly does."
Within the Department of Justice, U.S. attorneys' offices are the country's principal litigators, representing the United States in civil and criminal matters across the nation and its territories.
Wilkins had been an assistant U.S. attorney in the Justice Department's Greenville office.
In that capacity, he successfully prosecuted a major mortgage fraud case in addition to large-scale gambling and international human trafficking and prostitution cases.
Wilkins comes from prominent legal and political stock. His grandfather was a lawyer. His father, William W. Wilkins, is a former chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and his uncle, David Wilkins, is former U.S. ambassador to Canada and former speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Wilkins graduated from Wofford College and the University of South Carolina School of Law. He has practiced law at Greenville's Leatherwood, Walker, Todd & Mann and has been an adjunct professor at Greenville Technical College. Wilkins, who is fluent in Spanish, has been a staff attorney in the legal office of Lockheed Martin Aircraft Argentina.
When he enters private practice, Wilkins said initially he will work in his own law firm, most likely focusing on civil litigation, although he also might do some criminal defense work.
Politics also could be in his future.
"I'll probably be interested in politics my entire life. Having grown up in a family surrounded by politics, it is certainly an interest of mine."
But he quickly added, "As far as my personal future role in politics, all I can tell you is that I'm keeping my options open."