A prominent trial lawyer being floated as a potential ambassador pick by Joe Biden took millions of dollars in COVID relief, even as his firm was winning hundreds of millions in settlements.
Joseph Rice, cofounder of the South Carolina-based Motley Rice law firm, helped raise large sums for Biden's campaign and could land an ambassadorship spot in his administration, local reports indicate. Motley Rice received $7.03 million from Paycheck Protection Program funds, which were intended to help small businesses pay workers and stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several companies have faced criticism for taking PPP loans when they did not need them, including from prominent Democrats. Those criticisms don't seem to have swayed the incoming administration, which the State says is considering Rice for an ambassador role.
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Rice's firm gained approval for the loans after stacking up massive legal wins. In October 2019, Motley Rice announced a $260 million settlement against opioid manufacturers Teva, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson. In November 2020, it helped win a $26 billion settlement from Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies. Law firms often work on a contingency basis and receive portions of the settlements they reach.
"When a highly successful law firm receives millions of dollars in PPP money, it raises questions as to whether those funds actually went to preserve jobs, which is the purpose of the PPP program, or merely padded the shareholder attorneys' profitability," William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School, told the Washington Free Beacon. "This certainly raises serious questions that warrant investigation if a founding member of the law firm is nominated for an ambassadorship."
Other prominent plaintiff lawyers said the pandemic did not have a big impact on the industry and that they did not seek bailouts.
Rice helped gather more than $100,000 for Biden's presidential campaign. Employees at his firm donated solely to Democrats during the 2020 cycle, including nearly $50,000 to Biden. Biden also had a fundraiser at Rice's Mount Pleasant, S.C., home in late February.
The wealth amassed by Rice, who is considered one of the most successful trial lawyers in the country, has allowed him to purchase a 100-foot yacht and build his own golf course. He is also one of the biggest donors to the University of South Carolina.
Neither Rice nor the Biden transition team responded to requests for comment.