Politics & Government

Michael Phelps' lawyer now South Carolina's U.S. attorney

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday unanimously confirmed Columbia, S.C., lawyer Bill Nettles as U.S. attorney for South Carolina, making him the state's top federal prosecutor.

On a surfing vacation in the Bahamas, Nettles said he was very happy to have gained bipartisan Senate approval on a voice vote.

"I'm nothing less than thrilled," Nettles told McClatchy. "I really appreciate the support of both parties. I promise that I will represent all the people of South Carolina."

Nettles said he was receiving numerous congratulatory e-mails and text messages from friends and relatives as news of his confirmation circulated.

Nettles, 48, is a Columbia defense lawyer. His new post will put him in charge of 60 attorneys tasked with prosecuting federal crimes in South Carolina.

Among his most highly well-known cases, Nettles represented Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps last year in a criminal probe sparked by publication of a photo showing him holding a bong at a Columbia party.

Phelps drew a three-month suspension from competitive swimming, but Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said there wasn't enough evidence to convict him.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, hailed the Senate confirmation.

"Highly regarded by his peers, Bill is well-qualified and has led a distinguished legal career," Clyburn said. "His wide-ranging and extensive background in both criminal and civil law will serve him well."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, also praised Nettles.

"I think Bill will do an outstanding job as U.S. attorney for South Carolina," Graham said. "I appreciate the bipartisan support which led to his nomination and look forward to working with him to ensure that South Carolina remains safe and secure."

Nettles was an early supporter of President Barack Obama, who scored a key victory in January 2008 in the South Carolina Democratic primary. He provided legal advice to Obama's campaign operatives in the state.

Nettles replaces Walt Wilkins, who'd been appointed to the post in 2008 by President George W. Bush.

Wilkins resigned in January. Kevin McDonald, who's been a federal prosecutor in South Carolina for 10 years, has been acting U.S. attorney since Wilkins' resignation.

Nettles said he hoped to have his formal swearing-in by the end of next week, with a larger ceremonial swearing in to follow for friends and colleagues to attend.

"I would hope to begin work as fast as I could walk from the judge's chambers where I get sworn in to my office," Nettles said.

Nettles said he didn't anticipate having any problems making the transition from defending to prosecuting those accused of having committed crimes.

"I feel like all either side wants is fairness," Nettles said.

Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, noted that he himself had worked as a both a prosecutor — as 5th Circuit solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties — and in his current job as a defense lawyer.

"I've watched Bill Nettles' career," Harpootlian said. "He's a talented, well-rounded lawyer. He is an extraordinary catch for the people of South Carolina to have as their U.S. attorney. They're lucky he's willing to give up a lucrative private practice for public service."

Nettles' position as U.S. attorney carries an annual salary of $155,400, half the amount private practice lawyers of his experience earn.

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