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Editorial: One way or another, lawmakers must make SC sheriffs accountable

Sheriff Sexual Misconduct (copy)

Will Lewis enters the courtroom with his wife, Amy, in October, before being convicted of forcing an assistant to have sex with him while he was Greenville County sheriff. Josh Morgan/The Greenville News/AP Pool

In 2017, Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis was accused of using his power to push a personal assistant into having sex with him. The County Council called on him to resign, but he refused, and he kept leading the department for months, until he was indicted on obstruction of justice charges and suspended from office by Gov. Henry McMaster. He was removed from office in October, when he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison.

While all this was playing out, the State Law Enforcement Division opened an investigation into “allegations of misconduct” at the Greenville Police Department after Police Chief Ken Miller and a top deputy intervened to get a public intoxication charge dismissed against a wealthy businessman who was a donor to the police foundation.

That investigation concluded in December with a prosecutor deciding that although the whole incident was disturbing and there was evidence that Mr. Miller had been untruthful, he hadn’t actually violated the law.

If Mr. Miller had been a sheriff instead of a police chief, that would have been the end of the story. Because the only ways to get rid of a S.C. sheriff who isn’t ready to go are for the public to vote him out of office when he runs for reelection, or for the governor to remove him — which can only be done after a criminal conviction.

Since Mr. Miller wasn’t a sheriff, the news that he wouldn’t be indicted was accompanied by the news that he had been suspended and then, the next day, that he had agreed to resign. We can’t say for sure that he was pressured into resigning, although the fact that the city gave him four months’ pay in return for leaving suggests that he was. Regardless, the important point is that city officials had every right under state law to get rid of the police chief simply because they didn’t like his behavior.

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This “you can’t make this stuff up” comparison comes as South Carolina wrestles with an epidemic of abusive and too-often-criminal sheriffs, and it demonstrates how far we could go in cleaning up law enforcement if we made it easier to remove the sheriffs who have abused their power without crossing the line into criminal activity — something, by the way, that often leads to crossing the line.

Since courts don’t look kindly on elected officials being removed by anyone other than the voters, the surest way to accomplish this would be to stop electing sheriffs and instead turn them into regular county employees — just like police chiefs are regular city and town employees.

That would require amending the state constitution, and voters who haven’t experienced their own criminal or near-criminal sheriffs, a rapidly declining number, likely would object. But it’s something good-government advocates ought to add to their menu of solutions. Even if that’s too big a change for South Carolina, it might make other reforms look modest by comparison: requiring routine outside audits of all expenditures by sheriffs, requiring sheriffs to follow state procurement regulations, giving county officials clearer authority to deny sheriff’s office expenditures, and requiring sheriffs to post details about all their spending online.

Of course, those changes in fact are modest, with or without comparison, and there’s simply no good reason for the Legislature not to pass them. And if they don’t take action to rein in the abuse, that’ll just make the argument for appointing sheriffs stronger.

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