Columbia lawyer Nettles pushed for U.S. attorney

WASHINGTON -- Reps. John Spratt and Jim Clyburn have recommended to President Barack Obama that he appoint Bill Nettles, a prominent Columbia criminal defense lawyer, as the top federal prosecutor in South Carolina.

Nettles, 48, would replace Walt Wilkins, appointed by President George W. Bush last year as the U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

"I am not a nominee at this point," Nettles said Thursday. "The nomination process is for the White House to determine."

Aides to Obama declined to comment.

Senators normally recommend people from their states to fill Cabinet posts, ambassadorships, federal judgeship and other spots requiring Senate confirmation.

Because both U.S. senators from South Carolina are Republican -- Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint -- Spratt recommended Nettles for the U.S. attorney position as the delegation's senior House Democrat.

Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat and House majority whip, also signed the letter to Obama.

Chuck Fant, Spratt's press secretary, said the York Democrat had recommended "several individuals" in a letter to the White House.

Close associates of Nettles in Columbia said the letter went to White House counsel Gregory Craig. They said the U.S. Justice Department has contacted him as part of a background check that usually accompanies the White House vetting process.

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

Fant and Kristie Greco, Clyburn's leadership communications director, confirmed that Nettles had been recommended. They declined to identify other possible choices to be the top Justice Department official in South Carolina.

Wilkins or his successor will have a greatly expanded workforce to supervise in the state.

The Justice Department last month announced plans to consolidate its prosecutorial operations for South Carolina in the state, moving 250 jobs to USC. The employees will work in what is now the Moore School of Business after a new school is built in the university's Innovista area.

Among his other cases, Nettles represented Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps earlier this 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 prosecute him.

Nettles practices law with, and is the son-in-law of, Alex Sanders, former chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals and former president of Charleston College.

Sanders ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2002, losing to the Republican Graham.

Every state has at least one U.S. attorney, and larger states have two or more.

The posts have come under greater scrutiny after Democrats claimed that senior Bush administration officials played a role in the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons.