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Editorial: SC sheriff sweep should prompt reforms to deter corruption, abuse

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cannon leaving.jpg (copy)

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon is one of an unprecedented 14 S.C. sheriffs who won't return to office in January. Here, he leaves the room after conceding to challenger Kristin Graziano. Lauren Petracca/Staff

When we asked the two candidates for Charleston County sheriff if they would support a law requiring police body-camera video to be made public unless a court says it can remain secret, Sheriff Al Cannon insisted there was no need for a change to our secretive state law, while challenger Kristin Graziano said that, except under limited circumstances, people shouldn’t even have to file a Freedom of Information request to see the video.

When we asked about requiring routine outside audits of sheriffs’ expenditures, giving county officials clearer authority to deny sheriff’s office expenditures and requiring sheriffs to post details about their spending online, Ms. Graziano expressed enthusiastic support for that sort of increased transparency and accountability, along with reining in sheriffs’ access to easily abused funds.

Although Mr. Cannon noted that he voluntarily follows county procurement rules, he pushed back against the idea of giving the County Council any say over his budget and insisted that no reforms were needed to fight the epidemic of abusive and even criminal sheriffs, arguing that “all the sheriff’s that have been identified in public news and legal documents, have been charged criminally.”

These differences follow the pattern you might expect for any challenger taking on any long-time incumbent: The incumbent, after all, feels a need to defend the status quo, since he’s asking voters to continue it, while the challenger is arguing that voters should reject the status quo.

Regardless of the motivations, the fact is that come January, the more transparency-forward Ms. Graziano will be sheriff, and we should expect to see more body-cam videos after critical incidents — since state law doesn’t require but merely allows police to keep them secret — and more easily accessible information about how the sheriff’s office spends money.

Multiply that openness to reforms by 14, and you begin to understand the opportunity that South Carolina has to get its arms around a political culture that has its roots in medieval England, one that gave sheriffs nearly unlimited power.

More than a year of reporting by The Post and Courier’s Joseph Cranney and Tony Bartelme culminated in not only a string of indictments and convictions but also the election of new sheriffs to replace five convicted or indicted sheriffs, the retirements of four other sheriffs and the defeat of Mr. Cannon and three other sheriffs who weren’t accused of wrongdoing. One other new sheriff also was elected to fill the office of a sheriff who died in office.

The result is that more than a quarter of the state’s 46 sheriffs will be new to the office — an unheard-of number for an office that rarely attracts serious challengers unless there’s a significant political realignment in the county. While they might not all be as open to reforms as Ms. Graziano, none of them has a vested interest in defending the status quo. And, who knows? They might even want to push for statewide changes. We hope so.

Whether they do or not, our Legislature has the freest hand it’s ever had to act without fear of political pushback to reduce the temptation for sheriffs to abuse their office for personal or political gain. It needs to take the opportunity seriously.

Supporters say sheriffs are completely accountable because they’re elected. But the fact is that you can’t hold anyone accountable if you don’t know what they’re doing, and it’s no simple matter to uncover what S.C. sheriffs are doing, at least when it comes to spending money. It took months of painstaking research for Mr. Cranney and Mr. Bartelme to produce their “Above the Law” investigation documenting the abuses by S.C. sheriffs — some criminal, some merely political, but abuses nonetheless. And the amount of work it takes to track sheriffs’ activities tempts them into crossing legal lines.

The Legislature can remove some of that temptation by requiring routine outside audits of all sheriff expenditures, requiring sheriffs to follow state procurement regulations, giving county officials clearer authority to deny sheriffs’ office expenditures and requiring sheriffs to post details about all their spending online. And while they’re at it, lawmakers should consider giving county councils the authority to remove abusive sheriffs or even making sheriffs appointed positions, like police chiefs.

They might decide that’s going too far, but the debate would be worthwhile. They might never again have such a good opportunity to make that decision on its merits rather than under a cloud of political pressure from the most politically powerful individuals in many of our counties.

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