DUI, other charges won't affect DeWitt's retirement benefits

People upset with the handling of the arrest of Sheriff Wayne Dewitt protest during the Berkeley County Elected Officials Inauguration Ceremony on Jan. 2 at the Berkeley County Administration Building.

Regardless of the outcome of charges of driving under the influence and hit-and-run, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt will not lose any money he's paid into his state retirement account, according to state law.

Public employees do not forfeit their retirement benefits if they are convicted of a crime. In the case of an embezzlement conviction, a lien is placed on the account for the amount of loss or damage to state or local governments.

"Those benefits cannot be suspended or removed, as long as they earn them, unless there is some type of fraud," said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs Association, which provides continuing education and support for departments in the state.

DeWitt, 63, was driving a county-owned pickup truck when he was charged Dec. 28 with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of a crash with personal injury. He was released on an unsecured personal recognizance bond later that day.

He has remained on the job since his arrest, but day-to-day operations are being handled by Chief Deputy Rick Ollic.

DeWitt has been a public employee his entire career. He started out as an officer with the Holly Hill Police Department in 1972, according to the county's website. He joined the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office in 1974 and worked there for 20 years, until he took a position as a controlled substance inspector for the Medical University of South Carolina. He was first elected sheriff in 1994 and has been re-elected five times since then, most recently last year. He received 59 percent of the vote in the June Republican primary and had no opposition in November's general election.

Dewitt has not made any public appearances since his arrest, choosing to skip a Jan. 2 ceremony where 10 other Berkeley County officials took the oath of office. Instead he was sworn in by county Clerk of Court Mary Brown in a private ceremony two days later.

On Monday, he issued a statement that said he is "sorry for the embarrassment my recent conduct has caused. ... I accept full responsibility for my conduct. I will accept whatever outcome the judicial process determines to be appropriate. In the meantime, I intend to devote my best efforts to discharging the duties of the office of Sheriff of Berkeley County and restoring the public's trust in me."

Some residents have taken to social media to call for DeWitt to be removed from office and to lose his benefits. A Facebook group called Civil Demonstration Against Dewitt has protested at the county swearing-in ceremony Jan. 2 and at the Sheriff's Office headquarters.

The Public Employee Benefit Authority cited state law that provides confidentiality for members' records in denying The Post and Courier's Freedom of Information Act request for information regarding DeWitt's pension and whether he has previously retired.

DeWitt's annual salary is $101,128, according to the county website.

Based on length of service, DeWitt qualified to retire years ago. He also meets the minimum age requirement of 55.

Many police officers retire and continue to work, Bruder said. He said he did not know if that includes DeWitt.

On Wednesday, Bruder released a statement on behalf of the association that said, "In no way do we condone Sheriff DeWitt's conduct on the morning of Dec. 28th. Sheriff DeWitt has apologized for his actions and stands ready to accept whatever outcome the judicial system feels is appropriate.

"While we do not support Sheriff DeWitt in his role as defendant, we do stand ready to assist and serve him in his role as Sheriff. ..."

If DeWitt is indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury of a crime of "moral turpitude," Gov. Nikki Haley could suspend him from office until acquitted or until the case was otherwise disposed of, according to state law. She could also appoint a "suitable person" to hold office during that time.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.