September 14, 2009
Rep. Joe ("You Lie!") Wilson's now-legendary exclamation during President Obama's speech to Congress last week was itself essentially untrue, as we've documented.
But in trying to deflect charges of xenophobia in the wake of the outburst, it looks like the South Carolina congressman again played fast and loose with the facts.
At a Thursday press conference, Wilson was at pains to present himself as a friend of immigrants, declaring:
"We need to be discussing issues specifically to help the American people. And that would not include illegal aliens, these are people -- I'm for immigration, legal immigration, I've been an immigration attorney. But people who have come to our country and violated laws, we should not be providing full health care services."
We weren't aware that Wilson had been an immigration attorney. So TPMmuckraker went looking for information about his work in the field. And we came up dry.
According to the bio on Wilson's website -- or what's left of the site, after it crashed last week amid the flurry of attention he received -- he's a real estate attorney by trade, who helped found the West Columbia law firm Kirkland, Wilson, Moore, Taylor & Thomas, before entering Congress in 2001. He also has served as a Staff Judge Advocate with the South Carolina Army National Guard.
One lawyer from Wilson's home county of Lexington -- who said he has known Wilson personally since 1985 and described himself as very familiar with Wilson's law practice -- declared flatly to TPMmuckraker: "Joe has never been anything but a real-estate attorney."
The lawyer allowed that it was theoretically possible that Wilson could have taken a few immigration cases on the side, or have worked in the field before 1985, but he described that possibility as remote. "You could call 150 lawyers down here and ask if Wilson did immigration law, they'd say: 'Hell no.'"
Another South Carolina lawyer who has practiced immigration law since 1988 said much the same thing. "I can't say that the group of us in South Carolina who practice immigration law think of him as having" worked in the field, said the lawyer. He, too, allowed that it's "conceivable" that Wilson worked in a niche of immigration law that didn't cross paths with his own. But, he said, "if he has practiced as an immigration attorney, I'm not aware of it."
And George Finnan, a South Carolina immigration lawyer who has worked in the field since 1993, likewise said he "doesn't know anything about" Wilson's alleged immigration work. Finnan stressed that the world of South Carolina immigration lawyers is relatively small and tight-knit, and judged it all but impossible that Wilson could have done substantial immigration work in the last 16 years.
Nor was the American Immigration Lawyers Association of any help in documenting Wilson's immigration work. A spokesman for the group told TPMmuckraker that no one named Joe Wilson from South Carolina is currently a registered member, and that no one shows up under that name in a member database that goes back "ten to fifteen years." We asked the spokesman to look up the name "Addison Wilson" -- the congressman's real first name -- and he pledged to do so, but didn't get back to us before the end of the day. We'll update if we hear back on that.
And Greg Siskind, a Tennessee immigration lawyer conducted his own investigation of the issue, with similar results. He reports:
"I decided to call some of my friends in the Carolina immigration bar - including some from Columbia - and no one is aware of Congressman Wilson ever handling immigration matters."
Of course, it's certainly possible that Wilson took a few immigration cases early in his career, and the people we spoke to weren't aware of them. But even if that's the case, immigration law is a sophisticated, specialized field. Calling oneself an immigration attorney implies a body of technical knowledge and experience that Wilson, it appears, doesn't possess. So it would be misleading in the extreme for Wilson to claim to have "been an immigration attorney," as he did. Almost, dare we say it, a lie.
A spokesman for Rep. Wilson did not respond to TPMmuckraker's request for comment. No one answered a number listed for the firm of Wilson, Kirkland, Moore, Taylor, & Thomas.
Late Update: AILA spokesman George Tzamaras confirms to TPMmuckraker that, according to an extensive search of the group's membership database, no one from South Carolina by the name Joe Wilson or Addison Wilson has ever been a member.