The law firm of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen earned hundreds of thousands of dollars working for and against state agencies in court over the past decade, according to public documents provided by the Comptroller General's Office.
The firm -- Savage, Royall and Sheheen -- has won cases against the state for discrimination, for a child's fall and for a higher price for the owner of property the Transportation Department sought to expand a highway. Sheheen has also reported his firm has earned more than $756,000 in workers' compensation fees since 2004 -- cases decided by commissioners appointed by Sheheen's legislative colleagues.
Records also show Savage, Royall and Sheheen has been paid for public defense cases and has a contract to represent foster children's interests in disputes.
As a partner in the firm, Sheheen shares in its earnings. Sheheen's income has about quadrupled to $372,509 in 2009 from $93,668 in 2001, according to tax records, since he entered the Legislature.
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Income has become a campaign issue for the two major party candidates looking to restore the public's belief in government. Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington wants lawmakers to have to disclose their income, while Sheheen has argued trust is the most important trait of the next governor.
Sheheen has said he always follows state ethics requirements forcing him to abstain from agency or budget issues related to his firm's work. Sheheen also abstains from debate or votes related to workers' compensation commissioners.
Sheheen was campaigning and not available to comment Friday, but Bob Sheheen, his uncle, law partner and a former speaker of the S.C. House, said his nephew's work is above board.
"I don't see any conflict there," Bob Sheheen said.
In many cases, he said, attorneys were assigned to the cases by a judge. Bob Sheheen said an attorney-lawmaker has no way of knowing which cases his firm might handle in the future when voting on a budget, bill or other legislative issue, but should abstain for known conflicts. His nephew, Bob Sheheen said, has done very little work at the firm while campaigning the past 15 months.
Bob Sheheen said he has practiced law for more than 30 years and does not think lawmakers receive any special treatment from courts though they choose judges, commissioners on administrative panels and magistrates.
"Everybody who I worked with bent over backward to make sure I didn't receive any benefit."
But Haley's campaign said Vincent Sheheen's work is likely a conflict of interest.
"Vince Sheheen, a senator who should have the best interests of South Carolina at heart, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars defending, then suing our state," Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson said in a statement. "It is pretty clear the only interests he is concerned about are those of his law firm and his bank account.
"Senator Sheehen needs to disclose the rest of his clients so the people of South Carolina can clearly see every other unethical dealing he's been involved in."
Vincent Sheheen has declined to disclose his clients. Legal ethics experts said Sheheen cannot disclose his clients unless they give him permission, and Sheheen has said it is not possible to ask the firm's hundreds of clients for permission.
Haley's income has also come under scrutiny, particularly a $110,000-a-year fundraising position the Lexington Medical Center created for her in 2008 despite her minimal professional fundraising experience. Haley also earned $42,500 in consulting fees from engineering firm Wilbur Smith Associates from 2007 to 2009. Haley was not required to disclose the money, but she filed a bill in 2009 which would have required lawmakers reveal such income.
Most controversial of Savage, Royall and Sheheen's earnings is the firm's workers' compensation cases because they are adjudicated by commissioners appointed by the Legislature. According to Workers' Compensation Commission records, Vincent Sheheen has been the attorney in 90 cases since 2006. Of his last 10 cases, Sheheen represented an injured worker in seven and a business or insurer in three.
Workers' Compensation cases are a small portion of the firm's earnings, Robert Sheheen said, totaling 4.7 percent in 2009 and 8.5 percent in 2008. Vincent Sheheen earned a little more than $38,000 from his such cases in 2008 and 2009 combined.
"One hundred thousand dollars a year is not a whole lot of money with six attorneys," Robert Sheheen said of the firm's annual average workers' compensation earnings the past decade.
The largest state payments involved a handful of eminent domain cases with the Department of Transportation, with the bulk of the money paid to property owners through the law firm. Bob Sheheen said another firm brought him on in 2003 for his experience with eminent domain cases. Because a jury ruled in favor of the property owner, state law required the Transportation Department to pay the owner's legal fees of $375,000, according to agency spokesman Pete Poore. Sheheen's firm split the payment with the attorney who referred the case.
After the victory, Sheheen's firm settled three other eminent domain cases along the same road for a total of $658,000 with the attorney fees paid from within those settlements.
The records also show the state paid Savage, Royall and Sheheen $9,477 for a handful of public defense cases. The firm, the largest in Kershaw County, also holds a contract to manage guardian ad litem cases. In such cases, an attorney represents the interests of the 5,000 children in foster care in the state.
Virginia Ravenel with the South Carolina Guardian Ad Litem program said contractors are chosen on the basis of their experience and ability in child welfare issues. Once a firm wins a contract, she said, the contract is usually renewed unless the firm performs poorly. Savage, Royall and Sheheen was paid about $800 every few weeks to work on retainer for the guardian ad litem program. Vincent Sheheen has been paid about $55 for his work with the program, according to the law firm.
"It's not like there are tons and tons of people vying for it," Ravenel said. "It's not your going rate for attorneys."
Sheheen's campaign manager said the records show the firm is committed to public service.
"You see a firm that's dedicated to helping people," Sheheen campaign manager Trav Robertson said.
Another series of payments, $40,000, was paid to a partner in the firm who grades state bar exams.