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New charges allege Colleton sheriff embezzled money, ordered deputies to work on his property

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S.C. Sheriff faces judge on charges that he abused his position, embezzled money

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland (left) appeared in a Columbia courtroom on Feb. 18, 2020, on charges that he ordered deputies to improve his home, embezzled money and forced a sexual relationship with a subordinate. Joseph Cranney/Staff

A South Carolina grand jury on Tuesday indicted suspended Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland on new public corruption and misconduct charges, alleging that he used his power as sheriff to coerce an employee into a sexual relationship and ordered deputies to work on his home while they were on duty.

Continuing South Carolina's parade of sheriff scandals, the 15-count indictments also allege that Strickland gave away county property and illegally distributed the prescription drugs Ambien and Adderall.

Three hours after the grand jury released its findings, Strickland was in Columbia for a bond hearing before Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea Benjamin. Joining Strickland was Charleston attorney Andy Savage.

Creighton Waters, a prosecutor with the S.C. Attorney General's Office, said that Strickland directed deputies to do construction and brush clearing at his home. Strickland also ordered deputies to help him flip houses, sell used appliances — even do campaign work on county time.

"They actually had a name for it," Waters told the judge. "They called it a Code 48. If you were Code 48 with the sheriff, everybody understood what that meant."

Waters cited another allegation that Strickland went to Myrtle Beach to pursue an affair with an employee under 21 years old, and that he gave her alcohol and Ambien, a prescription drug used as a sedative. 

Witnesses broke down in tears as they spoke with investigators, Waters told Benjamin. "They felt that violence might be done against them."

Savage told the judge that Strickland was receiving treatment in Charleston but declined to be more specific.

Benjamin set Strickland's bail at $25,000 and ordered him to surrender his firearms, undergo GPS monitoring for 90 days and have no contact with witnesses or employees. Strickland then left through the back door of the courtroom without speaking to reporters.

Savage, however, said that the stream of indicted sheriffs reflects a shift of attitudes toward law enforcement nationally. "The default position today is that the law enforcement officer is wrong. The world has changed."

Prosecutors: S.C. Sheriff ordered deputies to improve his home, forced an affair

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland (middle) watches his attorney, Andy Savage (right), and S.C. prosecutor Creighton Waters huddle before a Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, hearing on corruption charges lodged against Strickland. Joseph Cranney/Staff

'Love affair' with policing

The indictments marked a stunning downfall for Strickland, 40. He was the state’s youngest sheriff when he was elected in 2012, replacing George Malone, who opted then not to seek a third term. Strickland previously worked as a trooper for the state Highway Patrol and for short stints with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Cottageville police.

After taking the reins in January 2013, he was credited with turning around a 66-deputy department suffering from low morale and a perception that it had failed to curtail gang violence. He did so, locals said, by getting involved in the Walterboro-area community where he has spent his entire life.

He told The Post and Courier in 2014 that his love affair with police work started after his father died when he was 10. He started looking up to a friend’s dad, a trooper in the S.C. Highway Patrol.

“I don’t come from politics,” Strickland said at the time.

Strickland (copy) (copy)

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland was indicted Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, on a charge of second-degree domestic violence. File/AP

But last year’s Post and Courier “Above the Law” investigation showed how a startling number of sheriffs across South Carolina lined their pockets on the public’s dime, tried to silence whistleblowers and bullied other public officials who questioned their behavior. And, Strickland’s spending and questionable behavior surfaced in the course of the newspaper's reporting.

Among the paper's revelations: Strickland used $1,500 in county tax dollars for a separate hotel room during a sheriffs conference in Myrtle Beach. He spent the money on a separate room for his children, he later confirmed. Social media posts show Strickland in Myrtle Beach with his kids and a female county employee.

At the time, Strickland defended the expense as "not a vacation" and told the newspaper he had nothing to hide.

Then, in November, his tenure as sheriff unraveled.

He was charged with domestic violence after allegedly punching a member of his household in the face several times, then preventing her from calling 911, state authorities said.

Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Strickland as sheriff and installed State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Charles Ghent as an interim while Strickland's case went through the courts. Strickland placed himself on paid leave. Last month, Colleton County Council put him on unpaid leave.

He earned about $80,000 a year, according to a filing with the South Carolina Ethics Commission.

'Free labor' and hotels

Tuesday's indictments painted a damning portrait of a public official using his position for private gain.

One count alleged that Strickland used public money on "non-official lodging expenses during a law enforcement conference in Myrtle Beach." 

During the bond hearing, Savage insisted that the sheriff reimbursed the county $1,500 for his Myrtle Beach trips.

But a prosecutor said "that only happened after" those excursions were revealed in The Post and Courier.

Another indictment count alleged that Strickland directed deputies and office staff to work on his land, home and businesses. 

The indictments also said he gave a radio worth about $3,000 to an unidentified person "with no valid official purpose." Doing so gave the person access to "first responder communication channels," the indictments said.

Further counts described allegations that Strickland used county vehicles and tools "for personal work on his properties and businesses," and that he had deputies and staffers do political campaign work for him while they were on duty. 

The indictments also went to the heart of the power imbalance between a sheriff and his employees.

Under South Carolina law, staffers work "at the pleasure" of sheriffs, meaning they can be fired for no reason.

One indictment count described how Strickland got "free labor" to work on his properties and businesses from deputies who “depended on Strickland’s good graces for their continued employment.” 

Strickland's business ventures remain murky. Public officials are required to describe their business ventures to the S.C. Ethics Commission. However, Strickland listed the sheriff's position as his sole source of income, a Post and Courier review of commission records found.

Colleton County records list Strickland as the owner of five properties: a pair of mobile homes on Hayden Street; a single-family home valued at $69,000 and a $147,000 agricultural tract on Jefferies Highway; a mobile home on Glen Street; and a single-family home valued at $40,000 on Poplar Street.

The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office offered no comment on the indictments against their former leader. The only posts on the agency’s Facebook page Tuesday concerned a missing man and a planned “Cops and Kids” event at a local Burger King.

The Post and Courier reached out to several Colleton officials, including the five members of County Council and Walterboro’s mayor. None were immediately available to comment about Strickland’s downfall.

Tuesday's indictments raise fresh questions about how some South Carolina sheriffs wine and dine themselves on the public tab and misuse their office in other ways. The state's ethics law prohibits public officials from using their positions for their own and their family's personal gain.

Still, 14 South Carolina sheriffs — including Strickland — have been accused in the past decade of breaking laws they swore to uphold.

Other sheriffs highlighted in the newspaper’s "Above the Law" report include Alex Underwood and Kenney Boone.

Underwood, the suspended sheriff of Chester County, now faces state and federal misconduct and corruption charges.

As with Strickland, Underwood is accused of ordering deputies to work on his property. Underwood also was indicted on charges that he used public funds to fly his wife to Nevada for a sheriffs conference and siphoned money from jail accounts for personal use.

And Boone, the former sheriff of Florence County, pleaded guilty last month to embezzlement and misconduct charges after prosecutors alleged he used federal narcotics money to buy bicycle equipment, electronics and clothes.

Because of these and other criminal charges, government watchdogs have called for reforms.

So far, South Carolina lawmakers have done nothing to slow the parade of scandals.

Joseph Cranney of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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