COLUMBIA — As the first anniversary of President Donald Trump's inauguration approaches, his administration still has not nominated a U.S. attorney for South Carolina, leaving the federal prosecutor's office in limbo as it continues to wait for a permanent leader.
Beth Drake, who has been an assistant U.S. attorney for over 20 years, has led the office in the interim since Bill Nettles stepped down in June 2016.
While Drake is widely respected in the S.C. legal community, former U.S. attorneys say no temporary replacement has a strong enough mandate to make major policy changes in the federal prosecutor's office.
"Beth Drake, while she's there, she's really good and very competent, but everybody knows that at any moment she could be gone," Nettles said. "So it's just helpful to have someone in there that the staff knows is going to be in there for a long time and can provide some stability and guidance about policy."
The 93 U.S. attorneys in districts around the country are tasked with handling high-profile federal crimes, which can include terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal immigration and public corruption. So far, Trump has put forward 58 nominations for U.S. attorney, 46 of which have been confirmed by the Senate.
The leading candidates for the coveted role in South Carolina are state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and Columbia attorney Sherri Lydon.
McCoy, who has served in the Statehouse since 2011, said he is excited about the prospect of serving as the state's top federal prosecutor but could not divulge any information about interactions with the Trump administration.
Even though the Charleston attorney has taken on a leading role in recent months handling the aftermath of a failed nuclear project in South Carolina, McCoy said he would not think twice about accepting the nomination if offered, describing the position as a dream job.
If nominated, McCoy would have to shut down his legal practice immediately, but he could continue serving in the Legislature until receiving confirmation by the Senate.
Lydon carries direct experience in the federal prosecutor's office, having served as an assistant U.S. attorney. Now a white-collar criminal defense attorney, Lydon was one of the lead prosecutors in Operation Lost Trust, a 1990 FBI sting that netted more than two dozen lawmakers and lobbyists in a public corruption scandal.
"I'm very honored to be considered for the position," Lydon said. "There is no finer job as a lawyer than that of a federal prosecutor."
Nettles was nominated shortly before Christmas in 2009, but his confirmation process dragged out until April of the following year. As a result, he said it's not unusual that a new U.S. attorney has not taken office yet, but he was surprised that the administration had not yet chosen a nominee.
For at least the past four decades, every president has nominated a U.S. attorney for South Carolina within their first year in the White House.
As far back as October, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Post and Courier he expected the Trump administration would nominate someone "hopefully soon, because we need one." A spokesman for the South Carolina Republican did not respond to a request for comment about any developments since then.
"It's not outrageously long, but it's starting to get on the outer realm just for a nomination," Nettles said. "Having said that, I feel fairly confident that once the nomination comes through it will move very quickly because we've got two Republican senators and it's a Republican administration."
On federal judgeships, the Trump administration has moved much more expeditiously.
Spartanburg lawyer Donald Coggins was confirmed as a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina in November. Trump's other pick for a federal judgeship in the state, Greenville attorney Marvin Quattlebaum, still has not been received a Senate vote since his nomination was reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed 17 new interim U.S. attorneys for districts around the country that still don't have a nominee because terms for initial interim appointees are running out.
But South Carolina was not included on that list, a development that some perceived to mean that the White House may be getting close to nominating someone from the Palmetto State.
Taking on the prestigious job can also serve as a launching pad in the legal and political world, as former U.S. attorneys become highly sought-after when they return to private practice.
After Henry McMaster was the first U.S. attorney nominated by President Ronald Reagan, he later become state GOP chairman, attorney general, lieutenant governor and eventually governor of South Carolina.
Pete Strom, who served as U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton, said he has heard both Lydon and McCoy have gone through FBI background checks since being interviewed in recent months.
“It’s not uncommon to have multiple candidates in a district and have more than one person vetted," Strom said. "I am surprised that this process hasn’t moved faster.”
Rumblings circulating in S.C. political circles have suggested McMaster is backing McCoy, while U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is pushing for Lydon.
Asked about the process Friday, Scott declined to reveal who he is supporting but said that Trump "should make a pick hopefully in the next month or two, I think."
McMaster said the timetable would be up to Trump, but he too declined to publicly offer his preferred candidate.
"I’m advocating for South Carolinians to fill many important positions," the governor said. "Some have received them and we’re waiting on the others. A lot of people in South Carolina would like to work in this administration, and I’m doing all I can to facilitate that."
The White House and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the interview process.
Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.