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Chester magistrate Underwood suspended again for improper dealings with husband's office

Magistrate Angel Underwood (2019_12_3_copy) (copy)

Chester County Magistrate Angel C. Underwood (right) takes the oath of office from Chester County Clerk of Court Sue Carpenter. The South Carolina Supreme Court has again suspended Underwood from the bench for improper dealings with the county Sheriff's Office while her husband ran the department. File/Brian Garner/The (Chester) News & Reporter/Provided

The South Carolina Supreme Court has again suspended Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood from the bench for improper dealings with the county Sheriff's Office while her husband ran the department.

Underwood agreed to the six-month hiatus for conduct that "served to erode public confidence in the judiciary," the state's high court announced May 25.

Disciplinary investigators found Underwood, while purportedly serving as an independent judge, used her official email account to issue instructions to her husband's employees and meddle in Sheriff's Office matters.

The suspension follows years of investigation into complaints the county's former chief magistrate abused her position and breached her duty to remain impartial to the local sheriff's department, formerly run by her husband, Alex Underwood.

The Supreme Court previously suspended Angel Underwood for a year between 2015 and 2016 for failing to disqualify herself from more than 100 cases brought by her husband's office. The high court then demoted her from her position as chief magistrate for Chester County last July as disciplinary officials investigated two other formal complaints against Underwood.

In October, they ultimately dismissed one of those complaints — that Underwood harbored a bias against new Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey because he was appointed to replace her husband. That followed Alex Underwood's 2019 suspension from office. Dorsey then defeated him in the 2020 sheriff's election.

The Post and Courier and Chester News and Reporter highlighted the complaints against Angel Underwood last year in an installment of Uncovered, an investigative series that aims to expose corruption and questionable conduct by government officials in small-town South Carolina. The report noted how the Palmetto State's slow and secretive process for investigating judicial misconduct complaints allows judges to remain on the bench for years with their integrity in question.

The complaint that led to Underwood's May 25 suspension, for example, was filed nearly three years ago.

Alex Underwood, meanwhile, is in hot water of his own. He was booted from office in 2019 amid a series of indictments on public corruption and abuse of power charges. A jury convicted him of several of those charges in April 2021. He now awaits a likely prison sentence of about four years after Judge Michelle Childs rejected most of his post-conviction appeals. Federal court officials have not explained why his sentencing has dragged on for 13 months.

Another of the Underwoods' political allies, former Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart, was suspended from office in September 2020 following his indictment on charges he trafficked meth out of his county car and conspired with others to steal parts off government vehicles. Stuart's case remains pending. Stuart controversially approved a $19,500 raise for Alex Underwood in 2016 and, a month later, steered $39,000 from county coffers to Angel Underwood to pay her for the year she was suspended, even though the Supreme Court ruled the county was under no obligation to do so.

Angel Underwood's attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson, would not comment on the May 25 suspension.

Investigators' findings mirror a complaint filed in June 2019 by Barbara Cameron, a former fellow Chester magistrate, that alleged Underwood remained "constantly involved" in her husband's Sheriff's Office even after her first suspension.

"This outcome is a step in the right direction," Cameron's attorney, Everett Stubbs, said May 25 in response to the suspension. "My client feels that the process took a little longer than it should have, but we applaud the Supreme Court for taking action and showing that this behavior will not be tolerated."

According to the suspension order, Angel Underwood between 2017 and 2018 had access to the sheriff's department Facebook page and fielded messages sent to the account. She would forward those messages to Sheriff's Office employees "requesting that certain actions be taken in response to various complaints, including suspected drug activity and trash and noise complaints," investigators found.

In one case, Stubbs alleged, Underwood contacted a sheriff's deputy about a message from a woman complaining about a drug dealer she thought was selling to her daughter.

“Please do something about this ASAP because she is Alex biggest supporter,” the judge wrote to a deputy.

Underwood also used her official email account as she helped her husband draft a disciplinary complaint concerning one of his employees in 2018, investigators found. Cameron had alleged Underwood helped one of her husband's top deputies craft a complaint against Cameron to court disciplinary officials — the same investigators who have probed several allegations against Underwood herself.

That same year, the probe found, Underwood prepared a letter on behalf of the sheriff's department recommending a student for a scholarship before directing her husband's staff to place the message on the department's letterhead and place it in a department envelope.

"These actions blurred the boundaries between her role as an independent and impartial magistrate and someone acting on behalf of the Sheriff's Department," the Supreme Court justices wrote. 

They added Underwood's "pattern of conduct with the Sheriff's Department is sufficient to create in reasonable minds a perception that her ability to carry out her judicial responsibilities impartially is impaired."

The Supreme Court ordered Underwood to pay the costs associated with investigating and prosecuting her complaint but didn't list the dollar amount.

Underwood's conduct and previous suspension also has drawn scrutiny to South Carolina's magistrate court system, in which judges lacking formal legal training are hand-picked by state senators to adjudicate hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor criminal cases and civil disputes each year.

In a system that has proven rife with incompetence and corruption, S.C. magistrates over the past two decades have taken bribes, pilfered money, sexually harassed women, sprung friends from jail and otherwise mishandled criminal cases, a 2019 Post and Courier and ProPublica investigation found.

Efforts to make the system more accountable have stalled in the S.C. Legislature.

Despite a string of scandals, for example, Angel Underwood has needed only the support of state Sen. Mike Fanning to remain on the bench. Fanning, a Great Falls Democrat, is a close ally of the Underwoods who backed their runs for public office. In previous interviews, he has defended Angel Underwood, calling her outstanding. He last reappointed her to a four-year term in May 2019.

Fanning did not respond to requests for comment May 25.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to averywilks93@protonmail.com.