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SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money

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SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money

South Carolina sheriffs have embezzled, bribed and dipped into public funds for expensive chauffeurs. They’ve driven drunk and bullied other public officials. They’ve been accused of leveraging their power to sexually assault their female employees. 

While many South Carolina sheriffs have strong records of serving the public, others served themselves and their cronies, a five-month Post and Courier investigation found.

In the past decade, no fewer than 11 of South Carolina’s 46 counties have seen their sheriffs accused of breaking laws — nearly one in four.

Like the sheriff in Orangeburg who funneled public funds into bogus credit union accounts to buy a $72,000 motor home. The missing money was discovered only after the sheriff died.

And the sheriff in Chesterfield County who embezzled money, gave weapons to inmates — even let a prisoner host a dinner at the sheriff’s home. A judge sentenced the sheriff to two years.

Lott

In this image taken from video, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a press conference in Columbia. File/Alex Sanz/AP

Now, The Post and Courier investigation has uncovered more cases of questionable spending and behavior. The newspaper requested spending records from all of the state's counties under the Freedom of Information Act. Reporters sifted through more than 5,000 pages of bank statements, receipts, lawsuits, campaign filings and IRS records. They interviewed former and current deputies and criminal justice experts.

Among the findings: some sheriffs spent public money on luxury accommodations, personal clothing and a host of other questionable purchases. Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood spent thousands to fly first class to conferences. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott used thousands of dollars in campaign funds to join a private club where members dine on beef tenderloin and rack of lamb.

These and other examples point to larger systemic problems with sheriffs in South Carolina and across the nation. The county sheriff is a unique form of law enforcement, rooted in history and the nation’s frontier mythology. They are among the most powerful public officials in many counties, especially in rural areas of the South.

sheriff timeline

But from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, no part of South Carolina has been untouched by scandalous sheriffs. The impacts ripple through communities. Sheriffs who abuse their positions set poor examples for their deputies. Corruption breeds fear and mistrust.

State laws also help perpetuate a culture of secrecy that allows wrongdoing to fester. The South Carolina Constitution requires employees to “serve at the pleasure” of sheriffs, a recipe for unfair retribution against those who speak out, criminal justice experts and former deputies say. The state also has weak whistleblower laws, making it even less likely for honest deputies to report wrongdoing.

South Carolina lawmakers have long had the power to create more checks and balances. But decade after decade they've stood by as corruption cases piled up.

The result is a system that generates scandals on a regular basis, a status quo that hands sheriffs a license to operate as if they’re above the law.

Spending and conflict

Consider Alex Underwood.

Voters in Chester County elected him in 2012, and his victory carried high expectations. Chester County is a piney area between Columbia and Charlotte. Mills and other businesses closed, leaving behind vacant storefronts and entrenched drug-fueled crime. One in five of the county’s 32,000 residents lives in poverty.

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Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood. Provided

Underwood arrived with a solid resume. As a special agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, he was known as one of SLED's best fugitive trackers. He stood 6-foot-4 and used the nickname “Big A.” He was an imposing presence in a place that needed help.

But his department’s spending records reveal a portrait of excess. His deputies patrol one of the poorest counties in South Carolina, yet that didn’t stop him from flying first class.

In 2017, the National Sheriffs Association held its annual conference in Reno, Nev., and Underwood's department booked first-class tickets to get there — $5,627 on the public dime. In a request form, the department said four people would go: Underwood, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and two ranking deputies. But the two ranking deputies never went. Instead, Underwood and Sprouse took their wives.

They stayed in the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, which according to the hotel’s website, is “a AAA Four Diamond resort surrounded by sweeping views of the majestic Sierra Nevada.”

Upon arrival, Underwood upgraded his room for an extra $100 a night, adding $600 to his travel tab. Underwood hired a Blacklane chauffeur for $353 to take four passengers to and from the airport. (“Your professional driver,” the company says on its website.) The airport is 2.3 miles away. The hotel offers a free shuttle.

Reno Arch Makeover

Pedestrians pass beneath the famous Reno arch as traffic passes on Virginia Street in downtown Reno, Nev. File/Scott Sonner/AP

All told, the Reno trip cost more than $11,200. The department's drug forfeiture account would pay for the trip, a note on one spending document said. Receipts show the trip was listed under “professional development.”

In written answers to the newspaper, Underwood said he upgraded his room in Reno to a king-size bed so his feet wouldn't hang off the mattress.

He said that no "taxpayer dollars were spent" for the trips, but that claim falls flat. Money for the trips came from "forfeiture" accounts, pots of cash filled by assets seized in criminal investigations. Such accounts are public money.

Underwood and Sprouse also said they paid for their wives' flights to Reno "out of our pocket." They didn't mention when they did this. But records show they each wrote checks for $1,311.85 to the department's "working account" on March 7, nearly two years after the trip — and just one day after The Post and Courier submitted written questions about the expenses.

Lavish spending

Flying first class is illegal in most cases for state employees — witness former Gov. Mark Sanford’s ethics charges in 2009. Sanford was charged with using state funds to buy first-class and business-class flights to Europe and Argentina, charges that led to a $74,000 fine.

But sheriffs are unusual islands of government. Their authority is rooted in the state constitution, and they're subject to state ethics laws. But because they're county officials, it's unclear whether they're bound by state procurement regulations, including ones that prohibit the use of state funds to buy first-class tickets. The South Carolina attorney general hasn't written an opinion on the issue, said Robert Kittle, the attorney general's communications director.

This legal gray area didn't stop Underwood from flying first class to other cities, records show.

In early 2018, he spent $513 on a first-class flight to Washington, D.C., for another sheriff conference. As in Reno, he booked a Blacklane chauffeur. The round-trip charge from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to his hotel was $146. Taxi and ridesharing trips are about $60; the city's Metro rapid transit system costs less than $3 each way.

And last year, Underwood went to yet another national conference, this one in New Orleans. He put two first-class flights on the department credit card. One ticket was his, the other was for his wife, Angel, Chester County's chief magistrate. It’s unclear why, but his wife didn’t go. Underwood told the newspaper it was due to "unforeseen circumstances." The $295 ticket was non-refundable.

Underwood then spent more than $430 for meals, including “fish LaFitte and turtle soup,” receipts show. The department also paid for his Blacklane chauffeur rides to and from the airport. Each trip cost more than $100. A taxi costs $36.

Underwood then missed his first-class flight back home. According to a deputy who also was in New Orleans, Underwood wanted to enjoy himself for another night. In a statement, Underwood said that he missed his mid-afternoon flight because of traffic.

"I had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor in another deputy's room," Underwood told The Post and Courier.

All this led to an extra $505 rebooking charge. Underwood flew economy on the rebooked flight but charged $25 for a seat upgrade.

Underwood told the newspaper he booked those first-class flights because he is "a very large man with prior knee surgeries and on-going medical issues. First class was the best option." He disputed that the county paid for his flights to New Orleans. He said he won a “free expense paid trip” to New Orleans from the National Sheriffs Association at a previous conference. However, county records show the department paid for the first-class flights.

Meantime, the National Sheriffs Association confirmed that Underwood won the trip but that the prize was only for coach tickets. The association paid the airlines directly for the tickets. It remains unclear why the county and the association both paid for tickets to New Orleans.

In any event, Underwood didn’t identify the association's gift in state ethics forms, a review of filings shows.

Though surprising, Underwood's lavish spending fits squarely into a deeper story about misbehaving sheriffs — history that offers clues to what’s happening today.

Unique place in history

Berkeley County sheriff nabbed in gambling scandal

Berkeley County sheriff nabbed in gambling scandal. Source: Post and Courier

The office of sheriff has roots stretching back a thousand years to feudal England. Kings called their landholdings “shires” then and had guardians known as “reeves.” Over time, the words “shire” and “reeve” melted into today’s “sheriff.”

Old English sheriffs collected taxes, maintained jails and captured wrongdoers. They conscripted serfs in emergencies — the origin of “posses.” With power came corruption — one reason why the fictional Sheriff of Nottingham was such an enduring character in Robin Hood myths.

The British exported the sheriff concept to its colonies. And after American independence, state after state made sheriffs elected positions. Today, nearly all of the nation’s 3,100 sheriffs are elected, their autonomy enshrined in many state constitutions, as is the case in South Carolina.

Yet decade after decade, sheriffs violated laws they swore to uphold.

There was Anderson County Sheriff Jim Williams. In 1972, federal prosecutors indicted him in connection with an auto-theft ring.

And Berkeley County Sheriff James Rogers. In 1982, he pleaded guilty to federal charges that he protected illegal gambling operations.

And Dillon County Sheriff Roy Lee. In 1981, federal and state authorities charged him in a vote-buying scandal.

And, for pure drama, what happened in McCormick County.

McCormick County sheriff arrested for embezzlement in 1986

McCormick County Sheriff Jimmy Gable pleads guilty to embezzling U.S. Treasuries. Source: Criminal Justice Chronicle, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, Ken Fortenberry, a local newspaper owner, asked to see a jail log. Then-Sheriff Jimmy Gable refused. Gable "told me he didn't give a damn what the law was," Fortenberry told The New York Times then. Fortenberry started digging and soon began fielding death threats. Two bombs exploded around his home. Gable eventually was convicted of embezzling $4,000 in U.S. treasury checks, but the chaos wasn’t over.

The governor appointed the coroner to take Gable’s place until the next election. But then SLED charged the coroner with trying to bribe his opponent, George Reid, to drop out of the race. Despite the charge, the coroner ran for sheriff anyway. Meantime, Reid, a former deputy, had been pardoned for a felony grand larceny charge. He had also failed his criminal justice academy course.

Reid won, prompting sheriffs across the state to call for tighter qualifications.

Among those leading the charge was Lexington County Sheriff James Metts.

Five years ago, Metts pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he accepted bribes to let illegal Mexican immigrants out of his jail. He was sentenced to one year in prison. He’d served 42 years as sheriff.

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Then-suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts leaves the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia in 2014 after pleading not guilty to federal misconduct charges and being released on a $100,000 bond. South Carolina's longest-serving sheriff was accused of lining his pockets by doing favors for friends. File/AP

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for criminal activity,” said George Glassmeyer, a former deputy in Lexington and Richland counties who later became a prosecutor and instructor at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. “You have access to jail inmates, and you can use their labor. You have access to seized money and drugs. And everyone is obedient because they know they can get fired if they question anything you do.”

Spectrum of misconduct

In 1988, South Carolina voters approved a change in the state's constitution requiring sheriffs to be free of felonies and have at least five years of law enforcement training and a high school diploma.

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Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon speaks during the news conference about the opioid epidemic that has plagued the tri-county community in recent months on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. Michael Pronzato/ Staff

Tightening standards hasn’t stopped sheriffs from running into trouble, though, and recent scandals fill a spectrum of misconduct.

On the lower end were cases such as the one in 2012 involving Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon. After a high-speed chase, Cannon slapped a handcuffed suspect in the face. Cannon was charged with misdemeanor assault and entered pre-trial intervention.

Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt’s case was more troubling.

In 2014, he sped away from a crash site in his county pickup truck at speeds of 108 mph. He was charged with driving under the influence. He resisted calls to step down. Then, a month after his arrest, the county released records describing allegations of sexual harassment. DeWitt quit just as the documents were made public.

Collection: Arrest of Wayne DeWitt

Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt was arrested for driving under the influence in 2014. (File)

Other sheriffs leveraged their positions in more nefarious ways. Consider:

  • Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was accused in 2010 of turning his office into a sprawling drug and fraud enterprise. Nicknamed "Big Dog," he took kickbacks to protect drug dealers. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
  • Former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells in a 2010 case tried to convince a witness to lie to the FBI, prosecutors said. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison.
  • Abbeville Sheriff Charles Goodwin was charged in 2013 with taking kickbacks on repairs to county vehicles. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay $4,445 in restitution.
  • Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson in 2014 crafted bogus police reports to help a friend’s credit repair business inflate credit scores for more than 100 people, indictments alleged. Johnson was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

More recently, a grand jury indicted Will Lewis, the now-suspended sheriff of Greenville County, on charges of misconduct, perjury and obstruction.

The initial charges came after an assistant, Savanah Nabors, alleged in a lawsuit that Lewis sexually assaulted her during a business trip. Lewis later said the affair was consensual. Lewis has denied the allegations, and Nabors’ lawsuit recently was settled for an undisclosed amount. But the lawsuit also opened a window into how Lewis viewed the Reno sheriff conference in 2017.

“You wanna go to Reno? You wanna do that?” Lewis said on a recording Nabors made of some of their conversations.

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Suspended Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis. William Crooks/Provided

“That’s too risky. I feel like if somebody were to find that out ...” Nabors said as they discussed sharing a room.

“Ain’t nobody going to find that out because ain't nobody gonna be there from South Carolina; I mean nobody’s going to find out; That’s the whole point.” He added in another recording: “There’s no paper trail for any of this. ... I want time away. I want you to myself. I want to be able and sit around on the beach and drink on company time and just ...”

Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Lewis, but the governor doesn’t have authority to permanently remove sheriffs without convictions.

"If I could remove him from office, I most certainly would," McMaster tweeted in 2017.

Lewis has said he wants to take his criminal charges to trial. Through his attorney, he declined to comment for this article. 

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Suspended Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis. File/William Crooks/Provided

Deborah Barbier, a Columbia attorney who prosecuted Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin and defended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson, said law enforcement jobs are low-paying and stressful, and that this stress sometimes leads to bad decisions.

"I also think that the age old adage that 'absolute power corrupts' is sometimes applicable," she said. "Every organization, including sheriffs' departments, has to have internal controls. There have to be checks and balances. The government should operate in transparency, but ultimately we must elect honest and trustworthy people."

“People aren’t watching sheriffs. I think that’s a big part of the corruption problem,” added Jessica Pishko, a lawyer studying sheriffs at the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative. “One reason is historical trust in law enforcement. Another is that people are afraid of messing with a powerful sheriff." 

John Crangle, a longtime government watchdog now with the S.C. Progressive Network, likens sheriffs to Roman emperors: rulers who were almost impossible to dislodge unless they died or were assassinated. Today, instead of deaths, federal and state investigations topple many sheriffs, he said.

“The first time I heard about crooked sheriffs was in the early 1960s,” he said. That’s when federal agents broke up a bootlegging ring in Darlington County, nabbing the sheriff in the process. “They had inmates making moonshine at a prison farm and deputies delivering it. That made an impression on me then.”

Crangle said he supports term limits for sheriffs and regular outside audits by the state inspector general. “The lack of supervision is one reason why we have so many crooked sheriffs. And the people who often run for this office often like power, have big egos, and those people are especially vulnerable to opportunities to engage in misbehavior.”

Pots of cash

Compared with other county office-holders, sheriffs can surround themselves with pots of cash. Money comes from county taxpayers, federal grants, fees, assets seized in criminal cases and many other sources. Sheriffs often are affiliated with nonprofit foundations. And they have campaign funds.

Lott

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott holds a press conference in 2009. File/Brett Flashnick/AP

Consider Leon Lott, Richland County’s longtime sheriff and one of the state’s most powerful law enforcement officers. Lott runs one of the largest and best-equipped departments in South Carolina, stocked with military surplus, an airplane and a $37 million budget.

He also has a penchant for steakhouses.

His department credit card shows at least $16,500 in charges for steakhouses and barbecue restaurants since 2015. Statements show more than $10,600 was charged at a single Golden Corral in Columbia during that time. He typically went there two to three times a month. Tabs averaged $175. In a statement, Lott's department said the sheriff holds monthly meetings with a deputy group to boost morale and discuss employees' concerns.

His credit card also helped employees work off those calories. Statements show more than $1,600 in registration fees for triathlons and running races. In a statement, the department said the races helped team-building and camaraderie.

Lott also flew to numerous conferences, including the same one in Reno that Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood attended. Unlike Underwood, Lott flew economy.

Still, he charged nearly $1,700 for a trip to Puerto Rico. Social media postings by the S.C. State Guard show him there for a conference and accepting a “Kukri knife ... made famous by the elite Nepalese Gurkhas.” (Lott is a brigadier general in the State Guard.)

Lott went to Puerto Rico to recruit bilingual deputies, the department said. So far, eight Puerto Rican deputies have been hired.

Leon Lott at the Golden Corral

Facebook screenshot of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott at a Golden Corral

Yet some expenditures blur the line between law enforcement and other purposes. The department used its narcotics fund, partially filled with federal money, to spend $5,200 on 400 insulated cups. The department said federal funds can be used for employee awards.

Lott’s department also is affiliated with a nonprofit foundation, as is the case with Underwood and a dozen other sheriffs across the state. These foundations take in thousands of dollars in donations — donations that often aren’t made public, a review of IRS forms showed. The Richland County Sheriff’s Foundation took in $263,754 in 2017.

Foundations, including the Richland County Sheriff's Foundation, often seek contributions by advertising how donor money is spent on equipment, such as radios and bulletproof vests, and on families of injured or deceased deputies. "If there is a need, The Richland County Sheriff's Foundation works to find a way to fulfill that need," the foundation says on its website.

Not mentioned: expenses for Christmas parties — about $23,000 in 2015, $25,000 in $2016 and $7,000 in 2017, IRS records show.

Lott's department said Christmas party expenses include costs of renting venues and handing out cash awards to deputies and others. An invitation for the 2018 Christmas party showed numerous deputies receiving $500 to $1,000 awards, with deputy of the year also getting an M4 military-style rifle.

Deputy of the quarter lunch with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

Deputy of the quarter lunch with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Provided by Richland County Sheriff's Office.

Campaign funds fill yet another pot of cash.

Records show Lott’s campaign paid $13,000 in membership dues to the Capital City Club, a private club that sits atop Columbia’s tallest building and is a prime mingling spot for government and business leaders. He also charged at least $2,600 at the club on his county credit card since 2015, records show.

The Post and Courier could find only two other sheriffs who reported using campaign funds to pay dues to private clubs, and those were for their local Rotary Clubs. In a statement, the department said the "campaign is separate from the Sheriff's department." While his department staff responded to written questions for this story, Lott declined to comment.

Suits and leather chairs

Other sheriffs also racked up notable charges, including Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile. Faile spent an unusually large amount on his government-backed credit card — more than $167,000 since 2017, records show.

Lancaster Sheriff Barry Faile

Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile in a video address from the sheriff's office.

Purchase cards, as they’re also called, are designed to reduce paperwork for small expenses. This leaves procurement officers time to negotiate with vendors over larger buys. But Faile routinely floated large transactions on his card, including more than $3,400 for two purchases at a sporting goods store and $42,350 on uniforms from a store in Asheville, N.C.

He also spent $2,500 on 1,000 poker chips emblazoned with the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office emblem. Doug Barfield, the department's staff attorney, said the chips were "given to children who visit the sheriff and others at the office and who are encountered in the field."

Faile spent an additional $1,900 on 720 Yeti tumblers, which are handed out as prizes at the annual Christmas party. Nutramax Laboratories, a company in Lancaster, donated money to cover that expense, Barfield said.

Also curious were Faile’s clothing purchases. In 2017, he spent $1,064 on two suits and a pair of pants from Joe Sugar’s, a store near Fayetteville, N.C. Last year, he also spent $860 on a suit from Brittons in Columbia. Faile receives an annual $1,200 clothing budget, and the suits came out of that fund, Barfield said, adding that it was appropriate for Faile “to have presentable civilian clothing for some of the many public appearances he makes.” Faile's salary is $86,527.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon. File/Staff

In Charleston County, Sheriff Al Cannon used his department purchase card for a $3,110 office chair from Mount Pleasant’s Relax The Back. He chose the Mont Blanc premium leather model over non-leather models that are $1,000 less. The sheriff bought the chair to help alleviate back pain, a spokesman said.

Marion County Sheriff Brian Wallace allowed deputies to use his purchase card. During out-of-town trips to Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Pennsylvania, Columbia and Charleston, they spent more than $260 at Hooters and Twin Peaks restaurants, chains that feature scantily clad waitresses. They spent hundreds more at breweries and sports bars.

Informed by The Post and Courier about the charges, the department’s chief deputy sent an email to deputies warning not to put charges from “Hooters or different types of sports bars” on the department credit card. “If you have to go to one of these places, use some other type of payment.”

Insulated and powerful

In theory, sheriffs have a powerful check — voters. But in practical terms, “once a sheriff is elected, he is insulated in all but the most extreme circumstances,” James Tomberlin recently wrote in the Virginia Law Review.

Alabama Sheriff Todd Entrekin

Etowah County (Ala.) Sheriff Todd Entrekin made headlines for allegedly underfeeding prisoners to pocket more than $750,000 in personal income, enough to buy a beach house on the Gulf Coast. Brynn Anderson/AP

Tomberlin argued this insulation has created conditions ripe for abuse, citing Alabama as an example. Under Alabama law, sheriffs can line their own pockets with profits from meals to prisoners. Serving cheap food is one way to take home more cash.

In 2009, an Alabama sheriff made $200,000 in personal income in part by feeding prisoners cheap corn dogs. This earned him the moniker “Sheriff Corndog.”

This practice continued. Last year, AL.com revealed how Alabama Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed $750,000 in county funds meant to feed prisoners. He earned enough to buy a beach house on the Gulf Coast. He has since been dubbed the “Beach House Sheriff.”

South Carolina doesn’t allow sheriffs to make money from prisoners’ meals, but sheriffs here have benefited from prisoners in other ways.

Much of the abuse came through the little-known Designated Facilities Program. The program funnels skilled inmates in state prisons to sheriff departments, which house them in county jails and put them to work on public works projects. About 330 inmates participated last summer. Jeff Moore, the former head of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association in 2014, pointed to this program specifically as a potential problem.

Parker-Chesterfield

Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker addresses members of the media during a press conference at Chesterfield High School in 2008. File/Brett Flashnick/AP

“It can save a county literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," he told The Associated Press at the time. "It’s free labor. But you can’t take them home or have them work on your pickup."

At least two sheriffs, however, did exactly that.

In Chesterfield County, ex-Sheriff Sam Parker was convicted of using state prisoners to work on his home and personal property. One prisoner serving 15 years for arson later said Parker allowed him to sleep outside the jail, visit women and become online friends with Parker’s wife.

When Parker was sentenced, the judge said: "You've done all these things that I think most sheriffs wouldn't even think about doing as far as misconduct in office."

Former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth

In this 2012 photo, former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth, gets ready to plead guilty to a misconduct in office charge at the Aiken County Courthouse in Aiken. File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

Yet in Saluda County, ex-Sheriff Jason Booth pleaded guilty to a charge in 2012 that he used a prisoner to build a “party shed.” The prisoner was also allowed to spend nights outside the jail, eat at restaurants and visit his girlfriend. The judge sentenced Booth to five years of probation and a $900 fine.

'Don't question me again'

In his piece for the Virginia Law Review, Tomberlin argued that sheriff departments should be folded into county governments. “The county government must be given power to act as a check on county law enforcement.”

As it is now, when county officials try to rein in their sheriffs, they sometimes get stiff-armed.

Witness what happened in Florence County last year, a conflict first reported by the news and opinion blog FitsNews.

Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone tried to put three rooms on the county’s tab — two rooms for himself and a third for a retired sheriff.

The finance director, Kevin Yokim, asked for an explanation. Boone then sent an email:

"Kevin,

"I don't have to get permission from you for anything that I do. ... This is the last time that I will give you any explanation on anything that I do. Don't question me again. ...

The finance director answered that he had to “ensure that county funds are expended for a valid public purpose.”

Boone left a voicemail threatening to send a deputy to Yokim’s house “to find your ass. Call me now!”

And then another:

"Kevin, Kenney Boone, again. I don't know what your deal is putting your nose in other people's business. ... You haven't seen hell yet because I’m coming back and I’m going to take it away from all y'all and do whatever I need to do."

SLED investigated the incident, but the attorney general decided not to prosecute, a spokesman calling the exchange unprofessional and rude but not a crime.

Boone joined his sheriff colleagues at the Myrtle Beach conference. Receipts show a $2,364.53 charge for his six-night stay. 

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Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone. File/Provided

Boone's tirade shows how South Carolina's laws are structured to favor sheriffs over other public officials. One law still on the books allows sheriffs to jail people who refuse orders to join their posse.

As a result, sheriffs enjoy much less oversight than police chiefs, who must answer to city mayors and councils.

There’s a notion “that democratic oversight is in the hands of the people — that if they don’t like them, they can vote them out of office,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law.

But voters may not have the time or accounting skills to scrutinize a sheriff’s performance, he said. “As a whole, constituents aren’t paying a great deal of attention until there is a high-profile scandal.”

Jarrod M. Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs' Association, countered that sheriffs already face numerous checks and balances from county officials and voters.

“Sheriffs are expected to be the standard bearer for their counties,” he said. “This structure has worked well in our state and across the nation for hundreds of years." The actions of a few shouldn't trigger reforms "to the processes that work for most," he added. "The overwhelming majority of sheriffs in South Carolina, past and present, are exactly that; they are trusted allies in good times and bad.”

Back in Chester County

Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood has found himself in numerous controversies — even before he became sheriff.

Creighton Coleman, a former state senator, said that in 2012 he was thinking then about appointing Underwood’s wife, Angel, as a magistrate.

“But I’d heard Alex wanted to run for sheriff,” he recalled. “And since something like 70 percent of the cases a Chester County magistrate hears come from the sheriff’s department, I knew that would be a conflict.” Handling sheriff's department cases would be unethical, and if she recused herself, she would overload other magistrates, he said.

He asked the Underwoods to meet him. But the meeting turned ugly when he told them he wouldn’t appoint Angel if Alex ran for sheriff. Underwood stormed out of the room. When he returned, he agreed not to run, Coleman said. “So I appointed her as magistrate, but then several months later he ran for sheriff anyway. It was a huge mistake to trust Alex Underwood and appoint Angel Underwood as magistrate.”

Underwood disputed Coleman's account as "ridiculous," and that his wife is "certainly more than qualified for the job! I would think that then-Senator Creighton Coleman would not use his power to deny employment for political reasons." 

It was an inauspicious start. Angel Underwood failed to disqualify herself in at least 100 cases, and the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended her for a year. The court later reinstated her after a public reprimand. At the sheriff's office, Underwood immediately fired six employees, a lawsuit said. He battled with other county officials over control of the 911 system. He irked animal lovers who said he diverted pet donation money to buy equipment. He angered council members after they said he bypassed procurement rules to buy a $70,000 SUV for his use. He was in a confrontation with a councilwoman from neighboring Lancaster County, prompting her to write a letter saying, “in my opinion, you are a violent man.”

Underwood denied at the time that he had threatened her. But a few months later, he argued with two fire chiefs at a traffic wreck. The argument turned into a scuffle, with deputies hauling off the chiefs, two brothers, on assault charges. The state attorney general dismissed the charges after a SLED investigation, and the brothers sued for false arrest. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

But the most sensational allegations came in 2014, when a female deputy filed a lawsuit alleging that he forced her to have sex, and that she complied because she feared for her job. Underwood strenuously denied the allegations. When the case went to trial, the jury sided with him. Shortly after the trial, a Charlotte TV station described the Underwoods as “Chester County’s very own power couple.”

South Carolina Senator Mike Fanning Facebook page photos showing party at Chester County sheriff's barn

South Carolina Senator Mike Fanning Facebook page photos showing party at Chester County sheriff's barn

Yet the conflicts and questionable behavior continued. Former deputies told The Post and Courier that they were called on department time to work on a new barn project on Underwood’s property. One deputy recalled being diverted from an important drug surveillance operation.

“We really wanted to get that guy, but we had to do what the boss wanted,” the deputy said.

Asked about the barn project, Underwood said, "the individuals that worked on the barn done so on their own time, not county time. Why would I call off an ongoing investigation when I am the sheriff and responsible for public safety? Ridiculous question."

The sheriff’s barn, complete with a dance floor and bar, has been the scene of lively department Christmas parties, according to social media photographs.

Meantime, his department’s program “Project S.T.O.R.M” was the subject of a Charlotte Observer and Rock Hill Herald report last month. Videos showed deputies manhandling and screaming at at-risk kids — behavior psychologists said it would trigger social service investigations had parents done the same things.

When asked whether he'd received complaints about the program, Underwood told reporters: “Just from psychologists.”

Facebook Live video of Sheriff Alex Underwood approaching Kevin Simpson in November 2018.

Then, in November, Underwood grabbed a 26-year-old man named Kevin Simpson who was streaming a Facebook Live video of a traffic wreck.

Deputies hauled Simpson away on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. They charged his mother with grand larceny, alleging that she took a radio one of the deputies had dropped. The case was initially assigned to Underwood’s wife, the magistrate.

“It was an abuse of power," Simpson told The Post and Courier earlier this year.

The newspaper has seen court evidence that Simpson's case has attracted interest from a federal grand jury in Columbia.

In 2015, Underwood was South Carolina’s Sheriff of the Year.

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Chester County Alex Underwood. Gwendolyn Glen/WFAE

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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

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.