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Chester County’s top elected official had rocky tenure long before meth trafficking arrest

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Former Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart

Former Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart (right) talks with Lewisville High School Principal Dr. James Knox at Lewisville's graduation ceremony in June 2017. Courtesy of the Chester News & Reporter

CHESTER — Shane Stuart's tenure as Chester County's top elected official was fraught with allegations of improper spending and misuse of his powerful position even before the county supervisor was indicted last month on charges of manufacturing and trafficking meth.

Emails, purchase orders and other documents obtained by The Post and Courier show how Stuart regularly clashed in power struggles with County Council and sought to reward his friends and political allies at the taxpayers’ expense.

After running for office in 2014 as a reform candidate who would clean up government waste and halt infighting, Stuart repeatedly rehired a convicted felon against County Council’s wishes, quietly directed a lucrative social media contract to his roommate and approved tens of thousands of dollars in raises without council’s approval.

In fact, County Council had asked the state attorney general to investigate Stuart's unauthorized spending more than a year before prosecutors charged the former sheriff's deputy with selling meth out of his county car and conspiring to steal catalytic converters off county vehicles.

The charges were yet another black eye for this rural county of 32,000, prompting headshaking across the former textile stronghold that sits an hour north of Columbia on Interstate 77. Former County Sheriff Alex Underwood, one of Stuart's strongest political allies, was suspended from office and indicted last year on charges of excessive use of force, conspiracy to cover up an unlawful arrest and misspending public money.

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Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey poses for a photo inside his office at the Chester County Law Enforcement Complex on Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019. Dorsey replaced the previous sheriff, Alex Underwood. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

County leaders are optimistic the recent turmoil is evidence Chester's longstanding problems are being rooted out, and that the county can change for the better.

“We are dealing with our problem right now so our children will not have to deal with it later,” acting Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey said at a Sept. 24 press conference after Stuart's indictment. “We are making Chester better.”

And some see Stuart's rocky tenure as evidence that Chester's unusual government structure — in which an elected, but sometimes unqualified, "supervisor" runs the county instead of a professional administrator — needs to change.

'The Shane Stuart I knew'

Stuart’s fall from grace has been the talk of rural Chester County this week, prompting disbelief from some and questions from others wondering how many more scandals there are to uncover. 

The news shocked Curtis LeMay, a retired art teacher who knew Stuart as a resource officer at Lewisville High School. He remembers how Stuart built a friendly rapport with students and encouraged them to avoid gangs and drugs.

“It seems so out of character," LeMay said. "That just wasn’t the Shane Stuart I knew.”

Tabitha Strother, Stuart’s assistant for his first three years as county supervisor, said Stuart “has a heart of gold” and always put others first. She recalled a day when Stuart gave his lunch money away to someone who needed it more.

“He tried to do as much good as he possibly could,” Strother said.

Stuart, who was released Friday on a $75,000 surety bond and placed on house arrest, did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

Even some of Stuart’s strongest critics said they like him personally. But they say his actions since his surprising election in 2015 made clear he was unqualified to be supervisor. 

Stuart had been a detective with the Chester County Sheriff’s Office and is an Air Force veteran. But he had no experience in elected office.

County supervisor is a big job that entails running the county's day-to-day operations and leading County Council. Just four counties in South Carolina have a county supervisor. Most others empower their county councils to hire and fire professional administrators with backgrounds in government.

Even though Stuart boasted the support of Underwood, many were shocked when he upset Democrat Carlisle Roddey in a special election. Roddey was a Chester institution, the county's supervisor for most of the past four decades. The county government building was even named after him.

Stuart promised to usher county government out of the 1970s and run an operation worthy of the public’s trust. But his honeymoon phase in Chester politics didn’t last long.

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Traffic moves down Gadsden Street on Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019, in Chester. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Going his own way

Stuart would make a series of decisions that left county leaders scratching their heads and, eventually, requesting a criminal investigation.

When County Council sought to eliminate the supervisor position in 2016, a move that required approval from county voters, Stuart pushed back, calling the proposal politically motivated.

His office later made a technical error that kept the question from being put on the ballot that fall, delaying the change. County Council Vice Chairman Joe Branham blamed Stuart, saying a competent administrator wouldn't have made the same mistake.

As the relationship between Stuart and council soured, the supervisor developed a habit of making decisions without the council's approval — sometimes causing budget overruns that county leaders hadn’t anticipated.

Just days after the 2016 election, and without council's knowledge, Stuart approved a $19,500 raise for his biggest political ally, Underwood, along with smaller pay bumps for a handful of Underwood’s deputies. Stuart also signed off on Underwood’s county credit card statements, which included charges for first-class plane tickets and other questionable expenses that were later highlighted in an indictment against the sheriff.

A month later, Stuart steered $39,000 in back pay to Underwood’s wife, Chester County Chief Magistrate Angel Underwood, for the year she was suspended by the S.C. Supreme Court over ethics conflicts. Underwood was disciplined because she had failed to disqualify herself from more than 100 cases involving her husband’s department.

County Treasurer Tommy Darby questioned the payout, emails show. He noted the state Supreme Court had already ruled that Chester was under no obligation to pay Underwood for the time she was suspended. He suggested Stuart run the plan by County Council, especially since the county hadn’t budgeted for the payout.

Stuart wrote that he had “taken the position that we are obligated since this issue was not (Underwood’s) fault.” He added “if we pushed this to county council we could end up in a legal battle” and moved ahead with paying Underwood anyway.

“He just didn’t feel like council would support certain things, so he didn’t take it to them, which was unfortunate,” Darby told The Post and Courier.

Council members became frustrated that Stuart was spending money without their approval and questioned the legality of his actions. Stuart, however, contended he didn't need their permission.

“If a supervisor is not doing their job, then the County Council has very limited ability to do anything about it,” Councilman Pete Wilson said. “We can raise a fuss about it, but we’re not able to fire the supervisor or really be able to hold him accountable.”

A questionable deal

Darby and Stuart continued to butt heads as Darby questioned expenses that came across his desk and brought them to the attention of County Council members.

In July 2017, Darby’s office became concerned when Stuart quietly tried to steer a $3,250 county payment for social media consulting to a just-created company called Zu Mogul Media. Darby’s office found that the firm was operated by Jason Ream, who owned a home with Stuart and helped run his first campaign for county supervisor.

When Darby approached Stuart about the potential conflict of interest, Stuart stood down and allowed the contract to be canceled.

Ream, who identified himself as a member of Stuart’s family during a court hearing Friday, did not respond to a request for comment.

Other times, Stuart became combative when Darby questioned him, emails show.

“I’m not sure if you are saying the job I’m doing unlawful , unethical, unconstitutional or what? If those comments are true, please say so,” Stuart wrote Darby in December 2017 during a dispute over Stuart's decision to let some county employees, but not others, carry over annual leave time. “I’m incredibly naïve in interpreting what you’re trying to say.”

County Council’s trust in Stuart eroded so much they voted to require every document he signs — from legal agreements to county purchases — come before them for review. 

“I was surprised that he stayed in office as long as he did without getting into some major trouble,” said Branham, who regularly battled with Stuart. “I thought it would be for other things other than that. Meth — that was the part I was shocked about.”

Repeated rehiring

The animosity boiled over last year when Stuart repeatedly rehired a convicted felon who had been investigated for hit-and-run with a county vehicle.

Stuart had hired Ace Hembree and promoted him to the top of Chester County’s animal control division despite the 32-year-old’s history of drug convictions.

One evening in April 2019, Hembree, Stuart and a handful of other county workers were leaving a Chester bar when Hembree backed his county animal control truck into a parked truck, causing some $900 in damage.

Hembree immediately left the scene “at a high rate of speed” and would later say he didn’t know he had hit anything, according to a Sumter-based law firm that County Council hired to investigate the incident. But video of the incident shows the parked truck jerked backward violently when Hembree struck it.

Hembree quit when County Council began looking into the incident.

But he quickly reapplied for his job. Stuart rehired Hembree, even though a county selection committee had preferred another candidate, the law firm found.

One of the committee members told the law firm, “Mr. Stuart recognized the potential controversy that would ensue upon Ace’s rehiring and said he would be willing to ‘take the heat’ for the rehire.”

When County Council found out, they voted to fire Hembree. They fired Hembree again after Stuart rehired him a third time. Finally, County Council passed a new ordinance stripping Stuart’s power to hire anyone who was previously fired by County Council.

Stuart was annoyed, writing in emails that County Council had broken county ordinances in hiring the Sumter law firm to investigate the Hembree incident. He said the firm's report "barely meets the hearsay standard."

Council members said the episode showed poor judgment.

Last month, Hembree was charged along with Stuart as a co-conspirator in the alleged meth trafficking operation. 

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The former Chester County Jail in Chester, seen Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, has been turned into a historical museum. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

'Another negative headline'

Just after the incident at the Manhattan Lounge last year, County Council requested S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson investigate Stuart's actions, writing they had "serious concerns" about how Stuart's actions might have "artificially inflated Chester County's budget." Wilson's office said it could not comment on that request.

At the time, Stuart responded with a statement suggesting mistakes had been made by county officials across the board.

“It’s painful to see our community having to endure another negative headline," he wrote.

Officials have released few specifics about Stuart's alleged involvement in the meth trafficking operation. At his bail hearings, prosecutors said investigators witnessed Stuart selling methamphetamine out of his county car, which they he reportedly used for deals because there was less chance he would be pulled over. Authorities allege he was involved in selling more than 400 grams of meth, and that his illicit activities extended into York County. A search of his home produced meth, drug paraphernalia and five firearms, prosecutors said. 

Chester County officials see Stuart's tenure as a cautionary tale. After Stuart's arrest, they moved to quickly distance the county from its now-suspended supervisor.

“It’s never worked," said Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant. "They have too much authority, and you get stuck with them for four years unless they commit a felony. … The supervisor can wreak havoc if you don’t watch them real closely.”

Many expect the recent news will be enough for voters to ditch the supervisor position. The question is on the ballot in November.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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