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SC voters usher in new wave of sheriffs after scandals. Advocates eye reforms.

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Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon concedes to Kristin Graziano during a press conference on Wednesday, November 4, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — In the wake of scandal after scandal, Election Day ushered in a likely record wave of new South Carolina sheriffs, with voters in more than a quarter of the state’s counties rejecting incumbents, replacing disgraced lawmen or selecting newcomers in their local races.

Former Charleston deputy Kristin Graziano, who defeated incumbent Sheriff Al Cannon, will be one of 14 new sheriffs sworn in come January. Incumbents in Darlington, Jasper and Saluda counties also were defeated Tuesday or during June's primaries. 

Among those ousted Tuesday was Chester County's Alex "Big A" Underwood, the former sheriff who is awaiting trial on corruption charges. That was one of five counties where voters picked a new sheriff after the predecessor was suspended or removed from office because of criminal charges alleging some form of abuse of power.

The results mark the largest turnover among the state’s sheriffs in recent memory, observers said. And it’s likely to embolden advocates and lawmakers who have pushed for ethics reforms among sheriffs while departments around the state have been rocked by scandals for years.

“I think it’s a very important development,” said John Crangle, an ethics watchdog in Columbia and head of Common Cause.

Crangle and others have called for regular audits of the various financial accounts managed by the state’s 46 sheriff’s departments. He also contends lawmakers must bolster protections for whistleblowers within sheriff’s departments. As it stands, deputies work at will for sheriffs, and may be disciplined or fired at any time.

He renewed his push for reforms in the wake of The Post and Courier’s investigation into sheriffs’ misconduct last year, “Above the Law.” The story exposed a spat of unethical or potentially illegal behavior, prompting a round of indictments against sitting lawmen.

That included Underwood, then sheriff of the largely low-income Chester area between Columbia and Charlotte. In the wake of The Post and Courier’s reporting, federal prosecutors alleged Underwood misused public money and lied to cover up a case of excessive force. State prosecutors followed with additional misconduct charges.

Despite the pending charges and a suspension from Gov. Henry McMaster, Underwood stayed in the race for his re-election this year. He was easily defeated Tuesday by Max Dorsey, a Republican who McMaster selected last year as Underwood's interim replacement.

Dorsey has already vowed permanent changes in Chester. “They were tired of the corruption,” Dorsey said of the area’s citizens. “That’s why there was a change here.”

Underwood, a Democrat, is awaiting trial and has pleaded not guilty to his state and federal charges. An attorney for Underwood, Stanley Myers, didn’t return phone and email messages left Wednesday seeking comment.

Closer to Charleston in Colleton County, to replace another recently indicted sheriff, voters selected longtime deputy Buddy Hill, a Republican.

He will succeed former Republican sheriff Andy Strickland, who pleaded guilty last month to charges that he beat his girlfriend, ordered deputies to work on his properties and used county resources to further what prosecutors called an “inappropriate” relationship.”

A South Carolina judge handed Strickland a probation sentence of five years.

He was the most recent of more than a dozen sheriffs to be accused of illegal conduct over the past decade. His career unraveled after The Post and Courier exposed some of his behavior that prosecutors now allege violated the same laws the sheriff swore to uphold.

The newspapers’ reporting highlighted other shady or disturbing behavior among the state’s elected lawmen, including recent cases in Florence and Greenville counties. Sheriffs in both of those counties were convicted of charges ranging from embezzlement to misconduct in office.

Voters selected permanent replacements in both those counties Tuesday.

In Bamberg, Barnwell, Dillon and Edgefield counties, newcomers will replace sheriffs who retired. In a fifth county, Georgetown, a new sheriff will take office as former sheriff Lane Cribb died of an illness last year.

Another wave of change came through the four counties, including Charleston, who voted out incumbents. Two Democrats and a Republican were elected in Darlington, Jasper and Saluda counties.

Jessica Pishko, a lawyer who studied sheriffs at the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative, said a lack of detailed voter information often makes it difficult to examine the motives of those who decide to kick their sheriffs out of office.

Incumbents rarely lose unless they are forced from office by scandal, she said. But even for areas that avoided those issues recently, Pishko pointed to the renewed interest around South Carolina sheriffs, in light of The Post and Courier’s reporting.

“There probably was a trickle-down effect of people looking at news coverage of sheriffs and thought it was worth paying attention to their race,” she said.

Elsewhere, in counties rocked by scandal, all of the newly elected sheriffs ran on platforms of increased accountability and transparency.

Jeff Bailey is a former magistrate in Union County, elected Tuesday as the permanent replacement for former sheriff David Taylor, now under indictment for allegedly sending lewd material. Bailey, a Democrat, stressed that controls can start internally.

He said in an interview, he has already volunteered his department to enter a statewide accreditation program, which will subject Union’s policies to the scrutiny of outside policing experts.

The newly elected sheriff of Florence County, former highway patrolman TJ Joye, said he also has plans to tighten his department’s spending policies, requiring at least a two-check system before expenses can be approved. He also endorsed the proposal to add protections to those who attempt to speak out against sheriffs.

“The way it is now, there’s no one to answer to, unless (a sheriff) gets indicted,” Joye, a Republican, said. “If there had been some checks and balances, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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