One of the candidates for Berkeley County Sheriff has come under fire for claiming to have a four-year college degree from a defunct institution that’s been labeled a diploma mill.
Duane Lewis, the chief deputy for Santee Cooper law enforcement, says on a campaign affidavit that he received a “four-year baccalaureate degree” on July 6, 1992. On his “Duane Lewis for Sheriff” Facebook page, he claims to be a graduate of Western States University with a bachelor’s degree in fire science.
Lewis, 51, captured 51.8 percent of the vote in the May 5 Republican run-off to edge North Charleston Police Lt. Brian Adams, 45. He will face Democrat Anthony Smalls in the June 9 election.
Western States was an unaccredited, for-profit school where students could buy degrees for a few thousand dollars without ever attending classes, according to a 1987 story in the Chicago Tribune. The school closed in 2005 while under review by the Missouri Department of Higher Education, according to a 2012 Orlando Sentinel story.
The school also has appeared on lists of nonaccredited colleges and universities by higher education departments in several states, including Texas and Michigan. Degrees from schools on the lists are not recognized by those states. A similar list could not be found for South Carolina.
In a statement Thursday, Lewis said, “I was saddened to learn two weeks ago of the unscrupulous dealings of Western States University. I have always been open about the degree I received from them.”
He declined to answer additional questions, but in his statement, he called the issue “nothing more than a political stunt by a twice-defeated and disgruntled candidate who reportedly attempted to illegally bribe former opponents for their support.” Another former candidate, Jerry Merrithew, told some news outlets Adams offered him a job if he’d drop out of the race, a claim Adams denies.
Adams, who on Thursday withdrew his support of Lewis, said he is not being a sore loser.
“I showed good faith (election) night,” he said. “I went (to Lewis’ victory party) to congratulate him and was able to accept the results of the election, but I think the citizens of Berkeley County have the right to have somebody in that seat that has honor and integrity.”
Adams said issues with Lewis’ education and time on the job that were brought to his attention have “cast doubt on the legitimacy of Duane Lewis as a candidate for Berkeley County Sheriff. That is why I am withdrawing my support.”
Adams also questions Lewis’ claim of 30 years in law enforcement. Lewis’ records from the state Criminal Justice Academy list his tenure with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office from 1984-1987, but he left the Charleston Police Department on March 1, 1991, and didn’t start at Goose Creek Police Department until Oct. 1, 1992, a gap of 20 months.
“That leaves me to question, ‘Why do we have to round up or embellish anything?’ ” Adams said. “If he’s got the qualifications, let’s just run with that. I think what he did was deceptive and disenfranchised the voters.”
Lewis has worked at Santee Cooper since 1994. Asked if his records there also indicate a college degree, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said, “That would be part of his personnel file and as a matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel issues.”
The Berkeley County Republican Party will continue to support Lewis, Chairman Tim Callanan said Thursday.
“A college degree is not a qualification for the office of sheriff,” Callanan said. “The requirement is a high school diploma and five years of law enforcement experience. The (Berkeley County) Republican Party will relentlessly support Duane Lewis both on the ground and financially as the Executive Committee voted unanimously Monday to finance ‘get out to vote’ efforts on his behalf.”
Republicans who endorsed Lewis in the runoff said they will continue to stand by him.
“I proudly endorsed Duane as the Republican nominee for sheriff and I will continue to support him to ensure that a Republican is elected,” said Berkeley County Chief Deputy Rick Ollic, one of the 14 GOP candidates who ran for the nomination.
Charleston County sheriff’s Lt. Danny Isgett, another candidate, called the issue “much ado about nothing.”
“Everybody thinks about the mind set today and you can Google things,” he said. “I remember back in (1992) and how in the world, if they said they were accredited, would you know they’re not accredited? I just feel that if he would have known anything about this, he wouldn’t have put it out there. I don’t think his intent was to commit fraud.”
Having run as a Republican, Adams and other candidates signed an affidavit that they would not campaign as a write-in, but Adams said if supporters want to write in his name, “it’s up to them.”
A Facebook page called “Concerned Voters of Berkeley County,” which has attracted nearly 2,500 members since it was started on May 12, is encouraging voters to write in Adams’ name.
Two other candidates have also launched write-in campaigns.
Derrick Burbage, a former state trooper and Charleston County deputy who fell short in his bid to become a petition candidate when he could not collect the required 5,313 signatures, said Wednesday he is asking people to write in his name.
In addition, Former Hanahan Police Chief M.C. Bellew announced on May 12 that he is also seeking the position as a write-in.
Smalls, the Democrat, did not immediately return a phone call for comment Thursday. Berkeley County Democratic Party Chairman Melissa Watson also did not immediately comment.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.