Crime & Courts

U.S. Attorney Nettles stepping down on eve of Roof trial

Bill Nettles: "Role of the federal government is to do what the states are unwilling or unable to do"

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles talks about his retirement, the role of the federal government and James Metts.
Up Next
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles talks about his retirement, the role of the federal government and James Metts.

Bill Nettles is retiring Wednesday as U.S. attorney for South Carolina, just before the federal death penalty prosecution of Dylann Roof, one of the highest-profile trials the state has seen.

In recent months, Nettles quietly lobbied high officials in the Justice Department not to seek the death penalty against Roof, the accused white supremacist killer of nine African-Americans last June in a Charleston church, sources said.

Nettles, who usually signs major documents, noticeably did not sign the Justice Department’s recent notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Roof.

To Nettles, a former criminal defense lawyer who represented a dozen clients in death penalty cases, it sufficed that state prosecutors were seeking the death penalty and had scheduled a January trial.

But Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who in May made the final decision to seek death, overruled Nettles. Now, the federal trial has been set for November, jumping ahead of the state’s death-penalty trial.

In an interview, Nettles declined to confirm his position in the death penalty deliberations in the Roof case, the highest-profile criminal matter his office handled on his watch.

“I will say this, when I took the job, I joined a team. And there is no ‘I’ in team,” said Nettles. “I am grateful to the attorney general. She allowed me to discuss with her my thoughts (on Roof). At the end of the day, I respect the decision she made and appreciate the opportunity to have been involved in the process.”

Apart from the Roof case, for six years, Nettles has brought changes to how the federal government pursues South Carolina criminal and civil offenders, according to those close to the office and how it works.

Since 2010, Nettles has shifted the office’s focus away from drug cases, instead prosecuting more white-collar crimes and getting involved in initiatives designed to prevent crime.

“It’s time to go,” Nettles, 54, said in a wide-ranging interview about leading the U.S. attorney’s office, a band of some 60 prosecutors and civil attorneys who work with federal law agencies like the FBI, the DEA and the IRS to press charges statewide against wrongdoers.

“Our office’s role is to get involved in South Carolina anytime the state government is unwilling or unable to act – civil rights, for example, and guns,” said Nettles, who earns $154,000 yearly as the chief federal law enforcement official in South Carolina.

Under Nettles, federal prosecutors sent longtime Lexington County Sheriff James Metts to prison on a charge involving freeing illegal Mexican workers from his county jail, levied a $1 million fine against a major S.C. farm for employing undocumented workers, sent prominent Midlands lawyer Richard Breibart to prison for swindling nearly 100 clients out of millions and prosecuted a Blythewood man who had fleeced the Veterans Administration for more than $1 million in disability benefits.

However, the number of defendants charged with federal crimes each year in South Carolina while Nettles was in office dropped from 1,190 in Nettles’ first year, to 828 in 2015.

“That’s by design,” Nettles said. “I shifted the focus from going after street level drug dealers – the state can prosecute those – to white collar crime and fraud cases.”

But federal initiatives against big drug operations in South Carolina continue. The FBI and local law officers recently rounded up dozens of alleged drug violators in Sumter and Orangeburg counties.

Key initiatives overseen by Nettles include:

▪ White collar crime. Under Nettles, the office began to focus on white collar crime, large and small.

“He showed there is more crime in South Carolina than just black crime,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. NAACP.

▪  Public corruption. Nettles oversaw the cases of Metts, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants and served a year in prison; former Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson, who received 30 months in prison for a credit scheme; and former Lee County charter school director Benita Dinkins-Robinson, who received 42 months in prison for embezzling $1.5 million in federal funds.

▪ Civil fraud cases against major corporations that were allegedly defrauding the federal government. In these cases, the government will file its own civil lawsuit against an alleged wrongdoer after a “whistleblower” brings the case to its attention.

In the past year, Nettles’ office has brought whistleblower cases against Lexington Medical Center and a large Columbia-area physicians’ group, Family Medical Centers, alleging that millions of dollars in Medicare billings were overbilled. The cases are pending.

“He has developed a national reputation in those cases,” said Bart Daniel, U.S. attorney in South Carolina from 1989-92 who initiated the far-reaching General Assembly corruption scandal called “Lost Trust.”

When Nettles took office, his lawyers were recovering only several million dollars a year in civil fraud cases. Now, with the civil litigation staff increased to seven from two lawyers, his office is on track to recover $200 million in 2016. That money flows into the U.S. Treasury and pays for Nettles’ 120-person office, with its annual $9 million budget, many times over.

Apart from prosecutions, some give Nettles high marks for reaching out to the South Carolina’s large black population after several shootings of African-Americans in North Charleston, Columbia and North Augusta by white police officers.

“At one time or another, we would communicate about every officer-involved shooting that we had,” said SLED chief Mark Keel in an interview. “We talked many times.”

Nettles’ involvement helped Keel – whose agency had initial responsibility for investigating the potentially explosive shootings by white officers – send a message to the African-American communities that both the federal and state government were taking the incidents seriously.

Nettles himself takes pride in what he calls “community-based law enforcement.” These involved initiatives to reduce crime by methods other than the traditional prosecuting and sending someone to prison.

“We’ve opened avenues other than incarceration,” Nettles said. “Our job is not to put people in prison –it is to make South Carolina a safer place.”

For example, in Charleston and Columbia, Nettles worked with police, civic and church groups to rid small neighborhoods of drug dealers and keep them that way. His office started an outreach to adult and juvenile serious offenders, making it clear to them that once freed, they would be subject to stiff federal prison sentences –15 years minimum; far stiffer than state law provides – should they be found with a gun.

And he pioneered federal drug courts that allow some drug offenders, if they pass intensive screening, undergo drug counseling and become law-abiding citizens, they can avoid prison.

Nettles also did not emphasize long prison terms as much as some prosecutors.

For example, it was a federal judge, not Nettles, who insisted that Metts serve at least some time in federal prison for betraying the peoples’ trust. Nettles’ office had agreed to a non-prison sentence.

“Him pleading guilty and surrendering his career would have sufficed,” Nettles said.

Nettles will be going into private practice, serving clients across the U.S. and state. His practice will include whistleblower and mediation cases, but he can’t take any cases that he was involved with as U.S. attorney.

Asked what he will miss, Nettles laughed and said, “People probably won’t return my calls as fast or laugh at my jokes.”