2011-12-23 / Business

Criminal defense law office opens downtown

By John Temple Ligon templel@thecolumbiastar.com

Columbia attorney Debbie Barbier has been with the U. S. Attorney’s Columbia office for 15 years, where she has built an impressive history of courtroom victories on behalf of the American taxpayer. She has forced collections in fines and in restitutions, amounting to millions of dollars. And she has sent to prison criminals for the long haul, thieves who were trying to steal millions of dollars from all levels of government local, state, and federal.

As of the first week in 2012, Barbier will remove herself from the U. S. Attorney’s quarters at 1441 Main Street and relocate on her own to 1531 Laurel Street at the corner with Pickens Street in a historic house for the practice of criminal law.

Barbier, a longtime Columbian, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where her father was an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At the time, most FBI agents came into the bureau from a law practice, a CPA office, or the officer corps in the military. Barbier’s father was in the last category. Before joining the FBI, he was an Army ranger with two tours in South Vietnam.

As a toddler, Barbier’s family moved her to Greensboro, North Carolina, where she spent most of her childhood. She was the fourth of six children, but she is the only lawyer. In Columbia, she is among very few female criminal lawyers.

As a college student at the USC Columbia campus, Barbier majored in journalism, even thought she would get into broadcasting, but she graduated one December and entered the law school at USC the following August. She and her husband connected while they were still undergraduates, and they kept up the connection through law school, marrying during spring break their third year.

Her husband Ralph is a partner in the Columbia firm Nexsen Pruet as a healthcare specialist. They have two children, Ally ( 13) and Grace (8). Ally is attending Richland 2’s Learning Collaborative Center, and Grace goes to the district’s Center for Knowledge on Alpine Road. Their house they built on Lakeshore Drive has ample yard area for their dogs, Maddie and Max.

Barbier worked two stints as a law clerk. First in 1994, she began her career as a clerk for the Honorable Joseph A. Wilson II, South Carolina’s Fifth Judicial Circuit. After a year, she moved to clerk for the Honorable Joseph F. Anderson Jr., federal judge.

In 1996, Barbier led the Affirmative Civil Enforcement Division of the U. S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, a position in civil law. By 2000, she was on her way as a criminal lawyer, prosecuting violent criminals and drug traffickers. In 2003, Barbier was named the chief of the Asset Forfeiture Division.

Some her more notable prosecutions:

 United States v. E. J. Melvin - Tried in October 2010, this case was the first RICO prosecution in the District of South Carolina for the previous 30 years. The defendant, E. J. Melvin, was the sheriff for Lee County. He was convicted of racketeering, distribution of narcotics, money laundering, theft, and making false statements. His prison sentence was for 17.5 years.

 United States v. Collins et al. - Six cockfighters were convicted of operating an unlawful animal fighting venture and illegal gambling. Another 21 defendants were convicted in this undercover operation.

 United States v. Paul Moore - Moore, the director of finance at the South Carolina Department of Social Services, conspired to steal more than $5 million from the State of South Carolina. Moore was sentenced to 10 years in prison. All told, besides Moore, Barbier successfully prosecuted 227 people who were involved in the scheme to cash the stolen South Carolina Treasury checks.

 United States v. C&D Distributors et al. - A defense contractor in Lexington, South Carolina, bilked the Department of Defense for more than $20 million. The defendant went to prison for a long time, and millions of dollars were returned to the United States Treasury.

 United States v. George Simmons et al. - Multiple public officials in Lee County were prosecuted and convicted for public corruption while their drug dealers also went to prison.

 United States v. Shanita McKnight - A Lake City police officer, McKnight was convicted of drug trafficking and extortion. She was the target of an investigation by the FBI, the Florence County Sheriff’s Department, and SLED in 2005 after sources revealed she took cash payments to provide protection and information to drug dealers. She is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

 United States v. Michael Woodward et al. - Seven physicians in Myrtle Beach were prosecuted by Barbier for the distribution of oxycontin, a painkiller. They were convicted and sentenced to prison.

 United States v. Raytheon - This case and related cases involved Barbier’s civil prosecution of multimillion dollar fraud by defense contractors at the Savannah River Site. Barbier recovered millions of dollars for the United States.

 United States ex rel . Burdick v. MUSC and UMA - At the time, this was the largest healthcare fraud settlement of its kind in the history of South Carolina. Barbier managed the civil prosecution of violations of the False Claims Act. The allegations involved the submission of claims to Medicare, Medicaid and CHAMPUS for services which were supposedly rendered by physicians, but the physicians were not on duty on the dates on the claims. They were on vacation.

In public service and soon in private practice, Barbier can find stress relief and intellectual exercise from her book club, where she has been reading the monthly assignments for more than 10 years. Currently the assigned book is The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin, which comes highly recommended by Barbier.

The other kind of exercise, the hard physical stuff, Barbier finds at Gold’s Gym on Forest Drive, one of John Hay Burris’s compounds.

Barbier is at a turning point in her career, but her career is still constant - the practice of law.

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