A South Carolina grand jury indicted Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone on Wednesday on charges he embezzled federal narcotics funds to buy bicycle equipment, electronics, coolers, baseball gear and clothes.
The indictments also said Boone used county funds to buy window tinting services, floor mats, tools and groceries.
Gov. Henry McMaster immediately suspended Boone and appointed Billy Barnes interim sheriff. Barnes served as sheriff from 1974 to 1993.
During a bond hearing in Richland County, Boone told Judge DeAndrea Benjamin: "This is a surprise to me. I understand this has been going on since November, and this is the first I've heard of any of this."
Boone had no attorney with him and was still in his sheriff's uniform: green cargo pants, a green polo shirt and an empty gun holster.
Heather Weiss, a prosecutor with the S.C. Attorney General's Office, told the judge she didn't think Boone was a flight risk but that investigators were concerned about retaliation. "In the past couple of weeks some texts were sent where threats were made about another situation," she said without going into detail.
Benjamin then released Boone on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond but ordered him to be put under house arrest, be monitored electronically and have no contact with his department's employees.
The indictments mark the 12th time in the past decade that one of South Carolina's 46 counties has seen its sheriff accused of breaking laws.
And it comes on the heels of "Above the Law," a Post and Courier investigation last month that highlighted how South Carolina sheriffs have embezzled, bribed and dipped into public funds for everything from expensive chauffeurs to luxury hotels.
Narcotics funds were especially prone to abuse, and some sheriffs used money from them as if they were personal ATMs, the newspaper found. Among the findings: Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood used narcotics accounts in part to fly first class to a sheriff conference in Reno, Nev., with his wife, while the Richland County Sheriff's Office used such funds to buy 400 insulated cups.
"It's about time they crack down on this stuff," said John Crangle, a longtime South Carolina government watchdog now with the S.C. Progressive Network.
Boone was indicted on two counts of embezzlement and one count of misconduct in office for "exploiting his position for unlawful personal gain." State Law Enforcement Division agents investigated the case.
Boone's mobile phone wasn't accepting calls Wednesday, and he could not be reached for comment.
Boone has been Florence County's sheriff since 2004 and is up for election in 2020. He is no stranger to controversy.
In October, two law enforcement officers died and five were injured in a vicious shootout that drew national attention. Boone asked the Richland County Sheriff's Office to investigate instead of SLED. In response, South Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill requiring SLED to investigate all officer-involved shootings. That prompted Boone to tell reporters in January: "I am not corrupt. I strive hard to make the proper decisions for the citizens that elected me to make those decisions."
Last year, Boone also had a run-in with Florence County officials over conference expenses, a conflict first reported by the news and opinion blog FitsNews.
In that incident, Boone tried to put three rooms on the county’s tab — two rooms for himself and a third for Barnes, (now the interim sheriff). When the county finance director, Kevin Yokim, asked for an explanation, Boone fired back an email: "I don’t have to get permission from you for anything that I do. ... Don’t question me again."
Yokim answered that he had to “ensure that county funds are expended for a valid public purpose.”
Boone then left a voicemail threatening to send a deputy to Yokim’s house “to find your ass!"
Boone eventually joined his sheriff colleagues at the Myrtle Beach conference. Receipts show a $2,364.53 charge for his six-night stay. The attorney general declined to prosecute Boone in connection with that incident.
In a press conference later Wednesday, Barnes said the department "has suffered a black eye," according to a report in the Florence Morning News.
Barnes told reporters that the investigation began when the department's chief deputy, Glen Kirby, noticed some spending irregularities. "I commend Chief Deputy Glen Kirby for having the courage to do what was right, even at the risk of jeopardizing his own career," the Morning News reported.
Wednesday's grand jury indictments said Boone made numerous personal charges during the county's 2018-2019 fiscal year. He spent federal narcotics money at more than a dozen stores, including Rapid Weight Loss, Mainstream Boutique, Mast General Store, Dick's Sporting Goods and GameStop, the indictments said. He spent county funds at Carolina Supply House, Another Tint Shop, Leonard Aluminum and Sam's Club, the indictments said.
The indictments didn't describe how much public money was at stake, only that less than $10,000 was involved in each of the three counts.
The misconduct offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, according to a statement from state Attorney General Alan Wilson's office. The embezzlement offense is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine.
The Sheriff's Office posted a response to the indictments on its Facebook page. "From the very beginning, the Florence County Sheriff’s Office brought the allegations supporting the indictment to the attention of SLED," the Facebook post said, without revealing any details about the allegations.
The agency said the department would "be open for a full and complete audit of all spending by this office," and that "to date there is no indication that anyone else employed by the Sheriff’s Office was involved in any of the allegations contained in the indictment."
According to the S.C. Association of Counties, Boone's salary in 2018 was more than $105,000.
Boone had been planning an event May 7 to announce his re-election. A Facebook post about that event has been removed.
South Carolina sheriffs dipped into public money to pay for luxury accommodations and broke laws they swore to uphold, a Post and Courier investigation found.