Taxpayers to cover legal fees

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA — Taxpayers are writing a blank check to cover spillover costs in the battle over $700 million in stimulus cash that is being waged in court.

But Gov. Mark Sanford and opposing litigants argue that what is at risk is more significant than the legal fees being rung up. Three suits have been filed in recent days over the governor's refusal to take the federal cash designated to help public schools and law enforcement programs through the recession.

The cost to taxpayers is impossible to pin-point at this time, but it will be paid in salaries for state-employed attorneys and other staff who are assisting them. The state's liability insurance also could be tapped to cover legal fees. Fire departments, county governments and agencies across South Carolina pay into the fund for coverage.

Sanford and legislative leaders have been at odds over the stimulus cash for months. Their inability to find common ground led to the lawsuits that were filed last week after the Legislature tried to force Sanford to take the $700 million in stimulus cash. Half of that money is to be spent in the budget that begins July 1.

Sanford wanted lawmakers to work with him to come up with a plan to pay off debt, an idea that the White House twice refused.

Senate leader Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said litigation is unnecessary. The governor should have accepted the decision Congress made on the stimulus funds, especially because taxpayers here are obligated to pay back the national debt whether South Carolina takes the $700 million or not, McConnell said.

"When governments sport around in the courtroom suing one another, the taxpayer is the loser," he said.

What is at risk

For Gov. Mark Sanford, who sued the state, the Legislature's disregard for the executive branch is a crux of the matter. The two-term Republican governor also is adamant about dire future consequences for taking the money. The state should make more budget cuts now to properly fund core services, rather than potentially push the decision off for the future, he says.

Joel Sawyer, Sanford's press secretary, said that if the governor hadn't filed court action, the Legislature's attempt to force Sanford to take the money could have a lasting impact on governors across the country.

For educators, teaching jobs and smaller classroom sizes are part of what is at stake. The state Department of Education is named as a defendant along with Sanford in a case filed by the S.C. Association of School Administrators.

For plaintiffs in the third suit — Casey Edwards, a Chapin High School senior, and Justin Williams, a third-year law student at the University of South Carolina — their education is at stake.

Dwight Drake, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, helped prepare an earlier version of the Edwards case, but has stepped aside as counsel on the current case. Still, he said the case will not represent any significant cost to the taxpayers.

Drake said the case is simple and straight-forward and does not require some of the elements that make cases expense to litigate, such as depositions and discovery periods.

A guide to the court battles

Here is a breakdown of the three lawsuits that have been filed since the Legislature tried to force Gov. Mark Sanford to take $700 million in federal stimulus cash designated for public schools and law enforcement. The money would be split equally between the budget year that will begin July 1 and the following fiscal year's budget.

All the cases are pending in federal court.

--Sanford sued the state on grounds that the Legislature violated the separation of power clause in the state constitution by trying to force him to take the stimulus cash against his better judgement. Sanford wants the court to permanently block the state from receiving the money.

The governor is represented by Columbia-based lawyer John Foster of the firm Kilpatrick Stockton, who has agreed to work for free.

Additional costs could be billed at a reduced hourly rate and would be charged to the state Insurance Reserve Fund. Sanford's office does not have an estimate of what those additional costs might be.

The governor's staff also is assisting in the case.

Sanford's case names Attorney General Henry McMaster as the defendant, and it is filed in federal court. McMaster's office did not provide information requested for this article.

--The S.C. Association of School Administrators sued the state, claiming that Sanford's refusal to act will lead directly to the termination of teachers, create larger class-sizes and diminish the quality of education.

The suit names Sanford and state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex as defendants in its case.

Molly Spearman, the association's executive director, said the purpose of the case is to see to it that Sanford takes the money and cites a July 1 deadline for the governor to grab the federal cash for education programs or lose it.

Spearman said she expects the costs for the private association to be nominal.

Rex wants the governor to take the money, but the association named him as a party to the case because of the role he plays in state finances. The Education Department pays its general counsel $107,552 a year for an array of services.

--Chapin High School senior Casey Edwards and University of South Carolina law student Justin Williams sued the state over whether the Legislature can bypass the governor and accept the money on behalf of the state.

Sanford, McMaster and Rex are expected to respond.