Wilkins proud of successes as U.S. attorney

COLUMBIA --- When President George W. Bush picked Walt Wilkins to be South Carolina's top federal prosecutor in 2008, Mr. Wilkins wasn't surprised.


Mr. Bush had appointed his uncle to serve as U.S. ambassador to Canada, and his father, Ronald Reagan's first selection to the federal bench, had just finished serving as chief judge for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But being the scion of one of the state's premier legal families comes with a particular challenge. After months helping prosecute street gangs and white-collar criminals, he hopes he rose to it.

"I felt like, initially, people were certainly looking at me, waiting to see, 'How is this Wilkins going to do? We're not so sure about him,'" said Mr. Wilkins, 35. "I hope that I met their expectations. I feel like I did."

Mr. Wilkins plans to leave office Jan. 10 and open a private practice focused on criminal defense and civil litigation. He's not sure he's done with the government just yet, and in a recent interview with The Associated Press he made it clear that he valued his time in office.

Before he took the top job, Mr. Wilkens spent three years as an assistant U.S. attorney. That experience added to the relationships he already had with federal judges, courtesy of his father's career. It also enhanced his knowledge of the basics of the federal court system and gave him a good idea of the attorneys he wanted to lead the office's divisions.

"This thing's like a tanker," Mr. Wilkins said about steering a federal office with 56 attorneys and 80 other staffers. "You have to wake up every day and say, 'OK, I'm going to accomplish five things today.' And if you do that everyday, after six months, you've accomplished a lot of things."

He focused in part on improving communication among South Carolina's state, local and federal authorities and on intensifying training for local officers on how to help make a federal case. Federal officials met weekly with state police and sheriffs, forging a relationship that enabled them to infiltrate and bust several gangs in the state.

His office also created an eight-hour training video to teach officers ways to help federal authorities make a case. Ensuring authorities know the questions to ask during a traffic stop, or what to do when a gun is found in a felon's car, can help seal a federal conviction, Mr. Wilkins said.

He also had success in white-collar cases. During his term, former Charleston Southern economist Al Parish was sentenced to decades in prison for swindling investors out of at least $66 million, the Department of Social Services' former finance chief pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $5 million from the agency, and a trio of con men known as the 3 Hebrew Boys were convicted of bilking more than $80 million from investors.

President Obama has nominated Columbia defense attorney Bill Nettles to take over. Though Mr. Nettles has never been a prosecutor, Mr. Wilkins predicted his courtroom experience will serve him well. "Any U.S. attorney who's got 20 years' experience in the law certainly has the skills to effectively lead this office, without a doubt," he said. "As long as you agree to follow the procedures and processes of the attorney general, you will do just fine."

Since his confirmation, Mr. Wilkins has been splitting his time between Columbia and Greenville, where his wife and their two children live.

"This has been the most rewarding experience of my professional career," he said. "It means a tremendous amount to me personally, and I really hope that the office continues to be successful."


DATE OF BIRTH: April 13, 1974
HOME: Greenville
FAMILY: Wife, Donyelle; daughter, Mary Burton; son, Walt
EDUCATION: 1996, Wofford College; 1999, University of South Carolina School of Law
EXPERIENCE: Staff attorney, Lockheed Martin Aircraft Argentina, 1999-2000; lawyer with Leatherwood, Walker, Todd & Mann, 2000-05; assistant U.S. attorney, 2005-08; U.S. attorney, 2008-present.