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SC cop blew the whistle on a domestic violence complaint. Now he's out of his job.

Holbrook, Lott, SLED's Frank O'Neal (copy)

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook (right) talks about a spate of gun crime in Columbia during a 2019 news conference. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (left) and State Law Enforcement Division Major Frank O'Neal listen. A former Columbia police officer has sued Richland County and Columbia for retaliation he said took place after he spoke to a reporter about his concerns over a former law enforcement chaplain. File/Chris Trainor/Free Times

COLUMBIA — A former Columbia police officer said he was pushed out of a 22-year career after he blew the whistle on concerns that the department, run by one of the capital county’s most powerful lawmen, tried to bury a domestic violence complaint lodged against a prominent pastor.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department arrested Columbia pastor Michael Baker, who was also the sheriff office’s chaplain, on a domestic violence charge in 2017. But former Columbia police officer Jason Roberts said in a lawsuit filed late last year that deputies stepped in only after he leaked his concerns about previous incidents involving Baker to the media.

After the arrest spilled into public view, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott demanded Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook identify the whistleblower and “make it right,” Roberts alleges in the lawsuit, filed in Columbia. Baker also was a chaplain for Columbia police.

Holbrook did take swift action against Roberts. Within a month of the leak, Roberts was suspended for five days. An internal investigation concluded the leak was “conduct unbecoming” of an officer and that Roberts used his position to “interject him into a matter that was not for him to do so."

Holbrook also reassigned Roberts from a specialized crime-prevention unit and placed him on street patrol, Roberts alleges in the lawsuit.

Roberts "no longer felt like a valued or respected member" of his department and quit. His lawsuit alleges his First Amendment rights were violated and seeks damages for being out of a job.

Now, Roberts has announced a run against Lott in this year’s race for Richland sheriff.

Through department officials, Holbrook and Lott both declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

In court papers, Richland County denied Roberts' allegations on behalf of Lott and the Sheriff’s department. The city of Columbia has not filed a response.

And in Columbia police’s disciplinary action against Roberts, a supervisor wrote the officer's actions were violations of documented policies covering officer conduct, dissemination of information and abuse of position.

Baker, still pastor at Columbia’s Greater St. Luke Baptist Church, denies being violent with his wife, with whom he is now divorced. Court records do not show any domestic violence actions against him. Baker said the charge against him was dropped.

He did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of injury to personal property after his wife told deputies he used a heavy-duty flashlight to bust her phone during the March 2017 incident.

Baker suggested Roberts was falsifying the allegations to drum up support for his political run.

“Jason was trying to make a name for himself and colluded with my wife,” Baker, 57, said. “I guess at that time, unbeknownst to me, he had aspirations of being the sheriff.”

Roberts insists he was just trying to do the right thing.

“This wasn’t something I had planned,” said Roberts, who worked for Columbia police from 2012 to 2017 after spending more than 10 years as a Richland deputy. “When this happened, I realized that the only way you can change the system is from the inside.”

Deputies showed up at the Baker home just before 10 p.m. on March 16, 2017, an incident report shows.

Darlene Hunter told a deputy that Baker shoved her to the floor and she hit her head on the wall. After fleeing to a neighbor’s house, she also told a deputy the scuffle left her with a bleeding hand.

Hunter said she did not want Baker to go to jail, Deputy Douglas Rooks wrote in his two-page incident report.

But in an interview with The Post and Courier on Tuesday, Hunter said she was convinced that law enforcement wouldn’t punish Baker because of his position with the Sheriff’s Department.

Hunter said that while officers were at the house, Baker phoned a top Richland deputy, identified in an incident report as Chief Deputy Wash James. 

Baker told a responding deputy that “he had just gotten off the phone with Chief James,” according to the incident report. Baker also flashed a deputy his Sheriff’s Department credentials.

Baker denied the allegation that he asked anyone to intervene.

“None of that is true,” he said.

Hunter called deputies to the house twice more over the next three days, incident reports show — first after Baker changed the locks to their house. Then after she tried leaving and Baker sat in her car, refusing to move.

“Mr. Baker stated that he wanted a report showing that Ms. Baker was leaving the residence and that he didn’t force her to leave,” Rooks wrote in his March 20, 2017, report.

“I knew nothing was going to happen,” Hunter told The Post and Courier on Tuesday. “I just knew.”

Those concerns prompted Roberts to step in, he alleges in his lawsuit, after Hunter confided to his wife about marital problems. Roberts was associate pastor at Baker’s church.

Concerned the incidents would be buried, Roberts obtained the reports from a colleague at the Sheriff’s Department and leaked the information to a Columbia TV reporter.

“My wife and I both agreed that … because I felt this woman’s life or safety was in jeopardy, I made a decision to contact a neutral party that could investigate this matter,” Roberts later wrote in a statement submitted as part of his disciplinary case.

The next day, deputies arrested Baker on the third-degree domestic violence charge that Baker said was later dropped. When the charge was reported by local media, Columbia police and the Richland County Sheriff's Department said Baker would no longer serve as chaplain.

Roberts faced an internal probe from Columbia police almost immediately.

The monthlong investigation concluded Roberts “interjected himself into the judicial process” and “disseminated information” without having any part of an investigation.

Roberts challenged the findings, but a grievance panel upheld the investigation, which was initially prompted by a three-page handwritten citizen’s complaint.

The citizen was Baker, who submitted it the day after his arrest.

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Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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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