COLUMBIA, S.C. — The suite of government offices on Meeting Street in downtown Charleston is nearly empty with the exception of a busy man who wipes down surfaces with virus-killing disinfectants before getting down to business.
“I’m making the most of talking to as many people as I can over the telephone, holding a lot of conference calls,” Peter McCoy said in a phone interview on April 6. “Practicing social distancing and keeping our folks safe.”
McCoy, 41, is South Carolina’s new U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. He assumed his post last week in the middle of the historic coronavirus pandemic and is bringing himself up to snuff with the players involved in tackling the state’s biggest federal crimes — the ones that attract a host of law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
McCoy said having the feds partner with local and state law enforcement offices is a top priority. One of those partnerships, which includes the South Carolina attorney general’s office, is a COVID-19 strike force unit that targets criminals taking advantage of the pandemic by price gouging and hoarding much-needed medical equipment and supplies, among other scams.
“During times of stress, of worry, like we’re in right now, there are going to be people who will take advantage of this and try to do South Carolina citizens wrong,” McCoy said. “There are all kinds of schemes related to COVID-19 out there.”
The scams may come by email, robocall, fake apps or social media, he said.
Currently, federal jury trials and other many court proceedings are on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak. Some court proceedings are being conducted by telephone or video teleconferencing. For criminal court proceedings, such as bond hearings, magistrate judges can hold in-person proceedings in a courtroom but are encouraged to limit attendance to prevent the spread of the virus, according to recent South Carolina federal court guidelines.
“Folks can still get arrested,” McCoy said. “Hearings will be held to a minimum number of people.”
Other priorities for McCoy include violent crimes, major drug crimes, white collar crimes, public corruption and domestic terrorism. McCoy — the state’s top federal prosecutor — supervises a 155-person office that includes approximately 50 criminal prosecutors.
Asked whether his office is still pursuing an investigation with the FBI into possible criminal fraud among by top executives at the former SCANA electric utility in connection with the $9 billion cost failure of South Carolina’s largest construction project — building two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County — McCoy gives the standard non-answer used by U.S. Attorneys for years.
“I can’t comment on current investigations, or potential investigations,” McCoy said.
But he added: “Public corruption is going to be of utmost importance.”
Generally, the public learns about federal investigations after a federal grand jury returns an indictment and the U.S. attorney’s office puts out a news release.
McCoy, a former state representative who backed legalizing what is commonly called medical marijuana, said his stance on the issue won’t stop him or the office from enforcing all criminal drug laws. “I’m going to follow and uphold all state and federal laws, and the Constitution as well,” he said.
McCoy said a bright spot for his tenure so far during the pandemic has been getting to know his staff. “[They are the] most professional hard-working people I’ve ever met,” he said. “I’m very proud, very honored to be part of an office like this. ... They have really helped me.”
McCoy, a Republican, maintains a good reputation with people in both parties.
“I’ve worked with Peter, and he’s always supported law enforcement,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a Democrat. “I’m glad to see the U.S. attorney’s office will be going after those who are taking advantage of our bad situation with the pandemic.”
Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, said he is “excited” about McCoy’s appointment.
“I know Peter and we already have a close and productive working relationship. This COVID-19 Task Force is a great idea and it’s already borne fruit,” Wilson wrote in an email, citing a recent tip that led to an investigation of a South Carolina-based company that was charging unduly high rates for medical protective masks. The company, once contacted by law enforcement, agreed to lower prices to be in line with market rates, Wilson said.
These days, McCoy isn’t just a crime fighter. Like most people, he also stays busying trying to avoid the coronavirus.
Going out, he wears a homemade mask fashioned out of a bandanna. “I bought a bottle of Lysol and I spray down handles, door handles, rests on arm chairs,” he said.
It’s the same goal he has as U.S. attorney for South Carolina: “Trying to make it [the state] as safe as humanly possible.”