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Trial begins for SC sheriff, deputies accused of conspiracy and corruption

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Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood (2021_4_9 copy)

Chester County Alex Underwood. Gwendolyn Glen/WFAE

COLUMBIA — The trial of former South Carolina Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood begins April 12, with federal prosecutors’ opening arguments that the Chester County lawman used his position to enrich himself, retaliate against his enemies and enlist deputies to help advance a corrupt agenda.

Underwood is accused of siphoning public money for his own use, using deputies for work improving his barn, ordering deputies to cite and arrest the sheriff’s political opponents and altering public documents to cover up some of the malfeasance.

Two of his former deputies — Johnny Neal and Robert Sprouse — also face charges, including conspiring to aid Underwood and cover-up a November 2018 arrest of a man who recorded deputies responding to an incident outside his home.

The trio will appear together before a jury of 12 in Columbia. The trial, with U.S. Judge J. Michelle Childs presiding, is expected to last three weeks.

Lawyers for Sprouse and Underwood did not respond to requests for comment. But the defense has maintained the trio’s innocence and argued in court papers that the stack of charges are a “malicious” and “flagrant attempt to force the defendants to plead guilty instead of risk pursuing their constitutional right to a jury trial.”

Andrew Johnston, a Spartanburg lawyer for Neal, stressed that his client has pleaded not guilty, adding, “His whole family stands behind him and we all have confidence in his defense.”

Underwood faces 10 counts of conspiracy, fraud and other tampering and theft charges that upon conviction could carry more than 80 years behind bars. Neal and Sprouse face 19 additional charges.

The charges amount to one of the largest public corruption cases lodged against a South Carolina law enforcement official in recent memory, even with a parade of scandals involving the state’s elected sheriffs.

Many of the issues involving Underwood were first exposed by The Post and Courier.

First, the newspaper reported on the case of Kevin Simpson, the 26-year-old Chester resident who Underwood confronted while the man live streamed the department’s response to a wreck outside his home. After a scuffle, deputies arrested Simpson and charged him with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Indictments alleged Neal and Sprouse wrote a bogus police report on the incident, and that the department illegally confiscated and tampered with Simpson’s phone.

The Post and Courier featured Underwood in its 2019 investigation, “Above the Law.” The reporting highlighted more than a dozen sheriffs who had been accused of breaking laws they swore to uphold in the past decade. It also laid out how several more sheriffs had abused their positions, lining their pockets on the public's dime and bullying those who questioned their behavior. 

Among the newspaper’s findings: Underwood and Sprouse flew first-class in 2017 to a sheriff’s conference in Reno, Nev. They took their wives, charging $5,627 on the county’s credit card. When they landed, they hired a $353 chauffeur to take them to and from the airport, a roughly 2-mile trip.

Underwood also enlisted deputies for renovations on a barn on his personal property, The Post and Courier reported. Prosecutors later alleged that the free labor was worth at least $10,000.

At the time, Underwood told The Post and Courier that deputies helped out on the barn on their own time and said the newspaper’s questions were “ridiculous.”

Now, prosecutors have centered their case around several of the same records first reviewed by reporters. That includes video from the Simpson arrest and travel vouchers from the Reno trip.

Other evidence that may be introduced at trial, summarized by prosecutors in court papers, includes revelations of other ways in which Underwood allegedly sought to punish his political opponents or those who declined to do his bidding.

Among the allegations: Underwood tried to have the county treasurer jailed because the official refused to sign off on a department pay raise, court records show. And in another instance, prosecutors say Underwood instructed a deputy to cite a state lawmaker because the official opposed the appointment of Underwood’s wife, Angel Underwood, as a county magistrate.

The Post and Courier identified that lawmaker as former state Sen. Creighton Coleman. He told the newspaper he was pulled over by a deputy and presented a reporter with a copy of a speeding citation from 2015. “I don’t know why he did it, but he did it,” Coleman said.

Coleman is among the more than 100 potential witnesses who may be called during Underwood’s trial. The list also includes Sen. Mike Fanning, a longtime Underwood supporter who has defended him since he was first indicted in May 2019.

Shortly after, Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Underwood and installed former State Law Enforcement Division Capt. Max Dorsey as the new sheriff in Chester County. Dorsey then defeated Underwood in last year’s election to earn a four-year term.

Underwood, Chester’s first African American sheriff, was first elected in 2012. A former SLED agent, he arrived in an area with high rates of poverty and a history of crime. But it didn’t take long for his tenure to be marked with conflict and scandal.

In 2014, a female deputy filed a lawsuit alleging that he used his position as sheriff to force her to have sex, allegations he denied.

The case went to trial in 2015. The jury sided with Underwood.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is an investigative reporter in Columbia, with a focus on government corruption and injustices in the criminal legal system. He can be reached securely by Proton mail at jcranney@prontonmail.com or on Signal at 215-285-9083.

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