SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money

South Carolina sheriffs have embezzled, bribed and dipped into public funds for expensive chauffeurs. They’ve driven drunk and bullied other public officials. They’ve been accused of leveraging their power to sexually assault their female employees. 
While many South Carolina sheriffs have strong records of serving the public, others served themselves and their cronies, a five-month Post and Courier investigation found.
In the past decade, no fewer than 11 of South Carolina’s 46 counties have seen their sheriffs accused of breaking laws — nearly one in four.
Like the sheriff in Orangeburg who funneled public funds into bogus credit union accounts to buy a $72,000 motor home. The missing money was discovered only after the sheriff died.
And the sheriff in Chesterfield County who embezzled money, gave weapons to inmates — even let a prisoner host a dinner at the sheriff’s home. A judge sentenced the sheriff to two years.

Now, The Post and Courier investigation has uncovered more cases of questionable spending and behavior. The newspaper requested spending records from all of the state’s counties under the Freedom of Information Act. Reporters sifted through more than 5,000 pages of bank statements, receipts, lawsuits, campaign filings and IRS records. They interviewed former and current deputies and criminal justice experts.
Among the findings: some sheriffs spent public money on luxury accommodations, personal clothing and a host of other questionable purchases. Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood spent thousands to fly first class to conferences. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott used thousands of dollars in campaign funds to join a private club where members dine on beef tenderloin and rack of lamb.
These and other examples point to larger systemic problems with sheriffs in South Carolina and across the nation. The county sheriff is a unique form of law enforcement, rooted in history and the nation’s frontier mythology. They are among the most powerful public officials in many counties, especially in rural areas of the South.

But from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, no part of South Carolina has been untouched by scandalous sheriffs. The impacts ripple through communities. Sheriffs who abuse their positions set poor examples for their deputies. Corruption breeds fear and mistrust.
State laws also help perpetuate a culture of secrecy that allows wrongdoing to fester. The South Carolina Constitution requires employees to “serve at the pleasure” of sheriffs, a recipe for unfair retribution against those who speak out, criminal justice experts and former deputies say. The state also has weak whistleblower laws, making it even less likely for honest deputies to report wrongdoing.
South Carolina lawmakers have long had the power to create more checks and balances. But decade after decade they’ve stood by as corruption cases piled up.
The result is a system that generates scandals on a regular basis, a status quo that hands sheriffs a license to operate as if they’re above the law.

Spending and conflict

Consider Alex Underwood.
Voters in Chester County elected him in 2012, and his victory carried high expectations. Chester County is a piney area between Columbia and Charlotte. Mills and other businesses closed, leaving behind vacant storefronts and entrenched drug-fueled crime. One in five of the county’s 32,000 residents lives in poverty.

Underwood arrived with a solid resume. As a special agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, he was known as one of SLED’s best fugitive trackers. He stood 6-foot-4 and used the nickname “Big A.” He was an imposing presence in a place that needed help.
But his department’s spending records reveal a portrait of excess. His deputies patrol one of the poorest counties in South Carolina, yet that didn’t stop him from flying first class.
In 2017, the National Sheriffs Association held its annual conference in Reno, Nev., and Underwood’s department booked first-class tickets to get there — $5,627 on the public dime. In a request form, the department said four people would go: Underwood, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and two ranking deputies. But the two ranking deputies never went. Instead, Underwood and Sprouse took their wives.

They stayed in the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, which according to the hotel’s website, is “a AAA Four Diamond resort surrounded by sweeping views of the majestic Sierra Nevada.”
Upon arrival, Underwood upgraded his room for an extra $100 a night, adding $600 to his travel tab. Underwood hired a Blacklane chauffeur for $353 to take four passengers to and from the airport. (“Your professional driver,” the company says on its website.) The airport is 2.3 miles away. The hotel offers a free shuttle.

All told, the Reno trip cost more than $11,200. The department’s drug forfeiture account would pay for the trip, a note on one spending document said. Receipts show the trip was listed under “professional development.”
In written answers to the newspaper, Underwood said he upgraded his room in Reno to a king-size bed so his feet wouldn’t hang off the mattress.
He said that no “taxpayer dollars were spent” for the trips, but that claim falls flat. Money for the trips came from “forfeiture” accounts, pots of cash filled by assets seized in criminal investigations. Such accounts are public money.
Underwood and Sprouse also said they paid for their wives’ flights to Reno “out of our pocket.” They didn’t mention when they did this. But records show they each wrote checks for $1,311.85 to the department’s “working account” on March 7, nearly two years after the trip — and just one day after The Post and Courier submitted written questions about the expenses.

Lavish spending

Flying first class is illegal in most cases for state employees — witness former Gov. Mark Sanford’s ethics charges in 2009. Sanford was charged with using state funds to buy first-class and business-class flights to Europe and Argentina, charges that led to a $74,000 fine.
But sheriffs are unusual islands of government. Their authority is rooted in the state constitution, and they’re subject to state ethics laws. But because they’re county officials, it’s unclear whether they’re bound by state procurement regulations, including ones that prohibit the use of state funds to buy first-class tickets. The South Carolina attorney general hasn’t written an opinion on the issue, said Robert Kittle, the attorney general’s communications director.
This legal gray area didn’t stop Underwood from flying first class to other cities, records show.
In early 2018, he spent $513 on a first-class flight to Washington, D.C., for another sheriff conference. As in Reno, he booked a Blacklane chauffeur. The round-trip charge from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to his hotel was $146. Taxi and ridesharing trips are about $60; the city’s Metro rapid transit system costs less than $3 each way.

And last year, Underwood went to yet another national conference, this one in New Orleans. He put two first-class flights on the department credit card. One ticket was his, the other was for his wife, Angel, Chester County’s chief magistrate. It’s unclear why, but his wife didn’t go. Underwood told the newspaper it was due to “unforeseen circumstances.” The $295 ticket was non-refundable.
Underwood then spent more than $430 for meals, including “fish LaFitte and turtle soup,” receipts show. The department also paid for his Blacklane chauffeur rides to and from the airport. Each trip cost more than $100. A taxi costs $36.
Underwood then missed his first-class flight back home. According to a deputy who also was in New Orleans, Underwood wanted to enjoy himself for another night. In a statement, Underwood said that he missed his mid-afternoon flight because of traffic.

“I had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor in another deputy’s room,” Underwood told The Post and Courier.
All this led to an extra $505 rebooking charge. Underwood flew economy on the rebooked flight but charged $25 for a seat upgrade.
Underwood told the newspaper he booked those first-class flights because he is “a very large man with prior knee surgeries and on-going medical issues. First class was the best option.” He disputed that the county paid for his flights to New Orleans. He said he won a “free expense paid trip” to New Orleans from the National Sheriffs Association at a previous conference. However, county records show the department paid for the first-class flights.
Meantime, the National Sheriffs Association confirmed that Underwood won the trip but that the prize was only for coach tickets. The association paid the airlines directly for the tickets. It remains unclear why the county and the association both paid for tickets to New Orleans.
In any event, Underwood didn’t identify the association’s gift in state ethics forms, a review of filings shows.
Though surprising, Underwood’s lavish spending fits squarely into a deeper story about misbehaving sheriffs — history that offers clues to what’s happening today.

Unique place in history

The office of sheriff has roots stretching back a thousand years to feudal England. Kings called their landholdings “shires” then and had guardians known as “reeves.” Over time, the words “shire” and “reeve” melted into today’s “sheriff.”
Old English sheriffs collected taxes, maintained jails and captured wrongdoers. They conscripted serfs in emergencies — the origin of “posses.” With power came corruption — one reason why the fictional Sheriff of Nottingham was such an enduring character in Robin Hood myths.
The British exported the sheriff concept to its colonies. And after American independence, state after state made sheriffs elected positions. Today, nearly all of the nation’s 3,100 sheriffs are elected, their autonomy enshrined in many state constitutions, as is the case in South Carolina.
Yet decade after decade, sheriffs violated laws they swore to uphold.
There was Anderson County Sheriff Jim Williams. In 1972, federal prosecutors indicted him in connection with an auto-theft ring.
And Berkeley County Sheriff James Rogers. In 1982, he pleaded guilty to federal charges that he protected illegal gambling operations.
And Dillon County Sheriff Roy Lee. In 1981, federal and state authorities charged him in a vote-buying scandal.
And, for pure drama, what happened in McCormick County.

In the mid-1980s, Ken Fortenberry, a local newspaper owner, asked to see a jail log. Then-Sheriff Jimmy Gable refused. Gable “told me he didn’t give a damn what the law was,” Fortenberry told The New York Times then. Fortenberry started digging and soon began fielding death threats. Two bombs exploded around his home. Gable eventually was convicted of embezzling $4,000 in U.S. treasury checks, but the chaos wasn’t over.
The governor appointed the coroner to take Gable’s place until the next election. But then SLED charged the coroner with trying to bribe his opponent, George Reid, to drop out of the race. Despite the charge, the coroner ran for sheriff anyway. Meantime, Reid, a former deputy, had been pardoned for a felony grand larceny charge. He had also failed his criminal justice academy course.
Reid won, prompting sheriffs across the state to call for tighter qualifications.
Among those leading the charge was Lexington County Sheriff James Metts.
Five years ago, Metts pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he accepted bribes to let illegal Mexican immigrants out of his jail. He was sentenced to one year in prison. He’d served 42 years as sheriff.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for criminal activity,” said George Glassmeyer, a former deputy in Lexington and Richland counties who later became a prosecutor and instructor at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. “You have access to jail inmates, and you can use their labor. You have access to seized money and drugs. And everyone is obedient because they know they can get fired if they question anything you do.”
SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money Reviewed by Your Destination on March 18, 2019 Rating: 5

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