Sitting in the Richland County jail on financial fraud charges, once powerful Lowcountry lawyer Alex Murdaugh fretted about getting his surviving son, Buster, back into the University of South Carolina’s law school.
“He’s got to make it a full-time job,” Murdaugh told his brother, John Marvin Murdaugh, in a phone call in late December. “He’s got to study five and six hours every day, six days a week.”
That discussion is among more than 100 recorded phone conversations of the jailed Murdaugh talking to relatives he remains closest to. The conversations, recorded late last year and early this year, depict Murdaugh’s sometimes painful adjustment to the tense monotony of jail life.
One subject repeatedly came up: Getting Buster, now 26, back into law school. Buster Murdaugh had not been allowed to return after his first year, due to what court records show were low grades and reported plagiarism.
Dozens of jailhouse tapes contain snippets of conversations showing an incarcerated father’s quest to get his son back in the first stage of a legal career by offering tips and how he used a high-powered lawyer to quietly convince law school officials to give Buster another chance.
During the telephone calls from jail, Murdaugh urged Buster to chat up law school administrators and to keep touching base with Karl “Butch” Bowers, the prominent lawyer the family had paid $60,000 to help Buster behind the scenes.
Ultimately, the effort failed — at least for the time being — for reasons that aren’t completely clear.
It remains to be seen whether the Murdaughs will keep trying to get Buster back into the USC law school.
Law School: ticket to power
Getting Buster back into USC’s law school was important to Alex Murdaugh.
The Murdaughs aren’t just any family. The USC law school isn’t just any law school.
For the last 100 years — through four generations — the family has been among the state’s legal elite, wealthy and successful lawyers whose names were known throughout not just the Lowcountry but all South Carolina.
Beginning with Murdaugh’s great-grandfather and continuing through his grandfather and father, for 87 years they had been elected solicitors in the five-county 14th Judicial Circuit, giving them oversight of every criminal case in that circuit.
The family law firm, which until recently always contained the family name, allowed the Murdaughs to accumulate wealth and land. The law firm became known for its multi-million dollar jury verdicts and settlements in personal injury lawsuits against corporations.
Until the law school refused to let him come back, Buster was on track to continue the dynasty and become the fifth generation Murdaugh lawyer.
The USC Law School for years has been a mandatory entry point for many in the state’s monied, legal and political elite.
Graduates who complete the law school’s three-year curriculum and pass the bar exam can get a law license. Without a law license, a person cannot be a lawyer.
Hopes of having Buster continue the family legal dynasty drove Murdaugh, who graduated in the law school class of 1994 — which produced its share of public officials and well-to-do lawyers — to try to help his son.
Alex Murdaugh’s late father, Randolph Murdaugh III, graduated with the law school class of 1964.
Ups and Downs
Recordings of the Murdaugh phone calls were released recently after the news blog, Fits News, originally obtained some tapes in February after filing an open records request with the Richland County jail.
After the initial recordings were released, Murdaugh’s lawyers filed a lawsuit against the jail seeking to bar further release of other recordings, but a federal judge disagreed. Two weeks ago, Richland County released more than 100 recordings.
The recordings between Murdaugh and his relatives, including Buster, chronicle the ups and downs of trying to get Buster readmitted.
At one point, Buster was accepted back into law school, according to the recordings and Murdaugh’s lawyer, Jim Griffin.
“He had an acceptance letter and was supposed to start in January 2022 for the spring semester,” Griffin said last week. “But it was mutually agreed that delaying readmission to law school would be best for him and for the law school.”
Griffin did not elaborate.
One possible obstacle for Buster: his father.
Since last September, the name Murdaugh has become a symbol to many for legal corruption in South Carolina.
The 54-year-old lawyer has been hit with numerous state grand jury indictments for financial fraud in alleged thefts of $8.3 million from clients, his law firm colleagues and associates. The state Supreme Court is working to disbar him with a haste rarely demonstrated by that body. His old law firm has rebranded itself and removed the family name.
And Murdaugh is a “person of interest” in the unsolved fatal shootings last June of his wife, Maggie, and youngest son, Paul.
“There is no question that the name Murdaugh has been badly tarnished since all the publicity broke about the father,” said John Crangle, a Columbia lawyer and long observer of public ethical behavior.
But it should be noted that there are no criminal allegations against Buster and sometimes law students who have been dismissed for honor violations can be reinstated, even though that can be difficult because it is such a serious violation, he said.
Not all lawyers agree that Buster should be allowed back.
“When you become a lawyer, it’s all about truth, honor and upholding the law,” said Eric Bland, a Columbia lawyer who is credited with filing a lawsuit last fall that led to the sweeping criminal fraud allegations against Murdaugh. “Buster was given a chance. He squandered an opportunity.”
And the name Murdaugh is now toxic, Bland said.
Buster’s current status with respect to the law school could not be confirmed. He is not enrolled now or for the law school’s fall semester, USC officials said.
Butch Bowers is hired
The behind-the-scenes story of how Murdaugh worked to get his son back into law school is contained, in part, in Murdaugh’s telephone conversations with relatives, including Buster, from jail last November, December and January.
To get Buster on a path to reentry, Murdaugh hired one of South Carolina’s most politically connected lawyers, Bowers, to do behind-the-scenes persuasion with university officials, according to the phone conversations.
Bowers was apparently hired in 2019 after Buster learned in the summer of that year he had been dismissed.
It would be a challenge to get Buster back in school, especially after an honors code violation. But Bowers took the job. After all, his firm advertises that he practices “at the intersection of law, politics and public policy” and specializes in “tailored solutions.”
For years, Bowers, 56, who avoids talking to the press, has been the go-to lawyer for the state’s political elite.
He has represented the state’s last three Republican governors — Mark Sanford, Nikki Haley and current Gov. Henry McMaster — on various issues and the governments of both Carolinas on election issues. Bowers is also a former chair of the S.C. Election Commission.
In early 2021, former President Donald Trump, at the suggestion of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recommended that Trump hire Bowers for Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate. But for reasons never fully explained, Bowers and his team of three other Columbia lawyers ultimately did not did not represent Trump.
In Murdaughs’ phone conversations, Bowers’ fee for working the magic that would get Buster back in law school was discussed. He would be retained for an initial $30,000 and get a total of $60,000 if he could pull off the feat.
In one conversation, in December, Buster asked, “Was Butch paid all the money that he was owed?’‘
Murdaugh replied, “It was upfront. It was 30 up front and 30 if he was …“
Buster interrupted, “I know the contingency.’‘
At first, Bowers had no luck with former law school dean Robert Wilcox, who was over the law school at the time when Buster was dismissed.
But after Columbia lawyer William Hubbard was hired to be new law school dean in August 2020, Bowers met with success. It likely helped that Hubbard and Bowers knew each other, having both practiced at the same law firm, Nelson Mullins in Columbia.
And, sometime last year, Buster got his acceptance letter.
Neither Bowers nor Hubbard responded to multiple queries.
“The university has said what the university can say, and I have nothing to add to that,” Wilcox told The State.
The university declined to comment except to say Buster is not enrolled for the upcoming semester.
According to a Dec. 1, 2021, phone conversation between Murdaugh and Buster, Bowers collected the bonus.
Jumping through hoops
Law school officials weren’t sold on the idea of Buster coming back, at least not unless he met certain requirements.
According to a December phone conversation between Murdaugh and Buster, the younger Murdaugh would need to meet special conditions to gain reentry, Buster told his father.
Among the conditions: Buster could never run for the student Bar and would have to meet with a student relations person to help get him through law school. Buster characterized the conditions as “stupid sh–.’’
“There is like a students relations guy that is supposed to help you get through law school, and I have to meet him every week,’’ Buster told his father.
But the biggest condition centered on the grades Buster would need for the law school, he said during the recorded conversation last winter.
The discussion between the Murdaughs touched on whether Buster would have to make an “extra high GPA.’’
Although the conversations indicate there were conditions Buster would have to meet to return to law school, the recordings also suggest there was talk of giving Buster a break if he returned this upcoming fall, as opposed to this past winter.
Buster said he understood that Dean Hubbard had said if he waited to go back to law school in the fall, then “all of my repercussions as far as GPA and everything would be amended, and I could start from scratch.’’
But there was confusion over the conditions, and Buster said he was seeking more information from Hubbard about those conditions of a return to law school. Buster said someone he had spoken to said there was discussion of letting him return to law school in the fall and “start from zero.’’
During their conversation on Nov. 6, Buster said he wanted to “get in touch with Butch’’ to help him with readmission.
“I basically want to talk to him and … thank him,’’ Buster told his father. “And basically, just say, you know, ‘Hey, I’m reaching out to the law school. If they start to backtrack at all, I’m going to need your help.’’’
At times during their conversations last fall and winter, Buster seemed less enthusiastic about trying to get back into the law school.
“I’m not mentally prepared,” Buster told his father at one point after his father suggested he try to audit some law school courses to get “back into the swing of things.”
Buster had written a letter previously to the law school as part of his readmission effort. Murdaugh told him to remind the law school of the things he has done in his life, like working “on a farm,’’ according to a recording from November 2021.
Murdaugh also stressed the importance of making connections to his son. He implored Buster to meet and stay in touch with Hubbard and high-ranking staff, urging the younger Murdaugh to become well known to them as he sought readmission.
Casual face-to-face meetings to say hello are important, the elder Murdaugh said.
“You need to build a relationship, like we talked about, where they know you personally, and you aren’t just some – it’s different when they know you,’’ Murdaugh said. “And I don’t mean casually. You need to be in their office once a week, just saying hello.’’
Reporter Travis Bland contributed to this story.
This story was originally published June 24, 2022 4:10 PM.