Politics & Government

Law firm is fount of candidates for 2010 elections

Forget the tea party. The real political movement in Columbia this year is happening in the law offices of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

The firm has candidates running for offices up and down the ticket - from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Dwight Drake to candidates for the board of state colleges, including the University of South Carolina.

Running for office is an offshoot of Nelson Mullins' long tradition of public service, current and former employees said. The Riley in the firm's name is former Gov. Richard "Dick" Riley. Other firms in the state, including the McNair Law Firm and Nexsen Pruett, also have partners who are politically inclined.

But some lawmakers are troubled by the number of offices sought by Nelson Mullins attorneys this year. They say the Legislature may need to look at ethics law to lengthen the time a candidate must wait before returning to lobbying.

"There's a great and proud tradition of public service," said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a former Nelson Mullins attorney whose grandfather was a founding partner of the firm. "It's a positive indication of the culture the firm has."

In addition to Drake:

- Charleston-based partner Ashley Cooper is running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor.

- Steve Morrison is a candidate for mayor of Columbia.

- William Hubbard is in a contested race to remain on the University of South Carolina board.

Running for public office can create a problem for clients of the sprawling national law firm, many of whom have issues before the General Assembly and state government. Smith had to leave the firm in 1997 after he was elected to represent Richland County in the House of Representatives.

Partner James Gray said the firm does not endorse its attorneys' running for office but does not discourage them from doing so either. Campaigns may not use Nelson Mullins office space or resources, he said.

"Attorneys have a profound belief in the First Amendment," Gray said. "It encourages others to participate. We have a strong government relations section.

"It's not hard to imagine people being interested in politics."

Gray said the firm has an obligation to manage conflicts of interest, adding that state and federal lobbying laws help attorneys separate their legal business from their political interests.

But the sheer number of candidates from the law firm has some lawmakers concerned about former attorney-lobbyists influencing state government from the inside.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, said candidates for office should have to wait longer after leaving office before they return to lobbying. Merrill also wants term limits for college board members, such as Hubbard.

"The public's skepticism and distrust is because of these extreme examples of what's typically called the 'State House revolving door,'" Merrill said. "People leave a job in name and try to move on to something better and step right back in if it doesn't work out."

Merrill said the push by attorney-lobbyists for their law firm co-workers who are running for office can be overwhelming and hard to stomach.

Gray said any additional lobbying restriction should be left up to the Legislature.

Smith said he always understood he would have to leave his position at Nelson Mullins if he were elected to office.

"I knew I was going to have to go out on my own," Smith said. "I think they work hard to separate those issues."