McMaster to return attorneys' donations

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COLUMBIA --- South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said Friday that he will return thousands of dollars in campaign donations from private lawyers he hired to do state work, a week after saying he would not give back the cash.

"These perfectly legal donations should not be allowed to create a distraction from the critically important issues our state faces now or in the future," Mr. McMaster said, adding that he would return more than $32,000 in donations he has received over his seven years in office from five attorneys he has hired to work on cases for the state.

Some of the contributions Mr. McMaster -- a two-term Republican now running for governor -- has received came into question last week after The Associated Press reported that campaign finance records and state contracts showed that two attorneys he hired in 2006 to help sue drug maker Eli Lilly then donated $7,000 to his campaign between June 2007 and March 2009.

Mr. McMaster's office said the contributions were legal and contended that an order issued last week as part of the Eli Lilly litigation exonerated the prosecutor. But state Ethics Commission investigators said the donations were illegal because of a state law that says no one awarded a contract by a public official without a bidding process -- which was the case with the contracted lawyers -- can then make a campaign contribution to that official.

Mr. McMaster later said that law did not apply to the attorney contracts but on Friday said he would give back the money regardless.

"When it comes to the issue of ethics in government, appearances matter as much as the law," he said, adding that he will decline future donations from attorneys with whom he has signed contracts.

The AP review involved two attorneys Mr. McMaster hired to help sue Lilly to recover state funds used to treat illnesses allegedly caused by the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa, signing a contract with Spartanburg attorney John B. White and Columbia attorney John S. Simmons in 2006.

Campaign records show that in November 2007, Mr. White gave the Republican $2,000 for his re-election campaign and gave $1,500 more in March of this year. Mr. Simmons gave Mr. McMaster $3,500 in September 2008, records show.

On Friday, Mr. McMaster said he was returning that money, in addition to $7,000 in contributions from both men's law firms. He also said he would return $19,000 in donations he received from three other attorneys after he had signed contracts with them to do work for the state.

According to the state Ethics Commission, only contributions from the attorneys who signed the contracts would be illegal. Last week, chief investigator Cathy Hazelwood said the firms could still make contributions on behalf of the practice.

Mr. McMaster's most recent filing shows he has more than $1.1 million cash on hand in his campaign account.

"There are a lot of lawyers, there are a lot of non-lawyers who make contributions to me, as well as to my opponents," he said during a Sept. 22 debate. "But my job, as attorney general, is to find the very finest lawyers to handle these cases. ... The fact that they made a contribution to me, or to my opponent, has nothing to do with what we do."

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