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Uncovered
The Gray Zone

Some SC public officials got caught doing the wrong thing – with little or no consequences

Some SC public officials got caught doing the wrong thing – with little or no consequences

The meeting happened in late January 2019, after choir practice.

A longtime foreman with the state Department of Transportation stepped out of a small white church near Hartsville and spotted the owner of a local tree service company. The owner had removed a tree along a highway and wanted to get paid, preferably with a DOT credit card.

The foreman handed over his state purchase card, and the tree cutter swiped it on his portable reader. Then he handed $200 in cash to the DOT foreman — for giving his company the work.

The DOT employee refused. He’d taken some cash a year before and that decision had weighed on his conscience.

So there in the church’s parking lot, the tree cutter put the money on the ground and left.

Moments like this create choices. While many public servants in South Carolina do their jobs with honor and diligence, more than 1,100 educators, law enforcement officers, judges and state employees made decisions since 2018 that clearly crossed lines, an Uncovered investigation revealed.

These 1,100-plus cases represent a gray zone of ethical breaches, cases that often don’t make headlines. You’ll find them in the files of South Carolina’s many self-policing boards and panels, agencies such as the state Criminal Justice Academy, Department of Education and Ethics Commission.

They involve small offenses and large, but all share one thing in common: moments when people in public positions made decisions that violated laws or professional standards of behavior.

Like the state Highway Patrol trooper who struck a suspect twice in the knees even though he posed no threat, then four days later deployed his Taser three times on a person who also wasn't a danger.

And the Berkeley County middle school teacher who stole a student’s saxophone and pawned it.

And the school superintendent in Chester County who threatened to slit an employee’s throat.

These ethical breaches sometimes lead to criminal charges, such as those against six Orangeburg County officers, who were convicted in a bribery scheme to protect what they thought were Mexican drug shipments.

But most officials ended up avoiding handcuffs and instead were reprimanded or saw their work licenses suspended.

Want to learn about these cases? You’ll find yourself in a gray zone of bureaucracy. Many examples are tucked in agency filing systems or obscure corners of government websites. The general public would be hard-pressed to find them without determined digging, knowledge of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and a checkbook to cover fees many agencies slap on people who ask for this information.

This lack of transparency represents a missed opportunity to establish a stronger culture of accountability. Experts in fraud say that deterring future misconduct begins with clear rules — and highly visible consequences when people break those rules.

The Post and Courier’s Uncovered project is shining a light on areas of government that often escape scrutiny, especially in rural areas where community newspapers are struggling. For this story, The Post and Courier reviewed state government disciplinary proceedings, hearings and filings.

This includes at least 460 cases the Department of Education handled, more than 620 misconduct allegations against South Carolina law enforcement officers, as well as Ethics Commission cases and complaints against magistrates and judges.

And it includes the one in Hartsville, where wads of cash magically appeared a few footsteps from a DOT foreman.

Because this previously unreported case involves people who made troubling decisions and agonized over them later, let’s explore this gray zone more deeply.

SLED agents interview Perry James, a former foreman with the state Department of Transportation

SLED agents interview Perry James, then a foreman with the state Department of Transportation. SLED/Provided

A tree grows in Hartsville

Darlington County and its largest city of Hartsville are part of South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, known widely for Darlington Raceway and its NASCAR events. Interstate 20 slices through the southern part of the county. Along its path, trees sometimes die or block views of signs. The DOT office there typically hired private companies to remove large trees. One of its contractors was McDonald’s Tree Service.

Gregory McDonald had taken over the business from his father, who died in 2009 while cutting a tree in Hartsville. McDonald mostly worked on weekends while holding down a job at a nearby industry.

In late 2017, McDonald’s company had removed some trees and was looking to get paid, an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division would later reveal. McDonald liked getting paid with p-cards because he got the money faster. For jobs less than $2,500, DOT officials often used purchase cards, or p-cards as they’re called. Anything more than $2,500, and the department's rules called for multiple bids. 

Perry James was a longtime DOT foreman in the area who typically handled these tree-cutting bills. But he’d nearly reached his p-card’s $10,000 spending limit, so he asked another foreman to pay for the tree work, the SLED investigation found.

His colleague’s name was Leverne Williamson, and he’d also been with the department for decades. McDonald showed up at Williamson’s home on a Saturday, and Williamson gave McDonald his DOT p-card. McDonald ran a $2,490 charge — $10 below that $2,500 threshold for competitive bids.

After running the card, McDonald handed Williamson $200 in cash, telling him he’d done that for James, the other foreman.

Williamson told SLED agents that the scenario happened again a year later, this time at Williamson’s church — that night after choir practice. But this time Williamson refused to take the money.

“I told him, ‘No, I’m not doing that. Oh God, it bothered me so bad (after the first time). I’m not doing this no more. That’s when he threw it on the ground and pulled off.”

A SLED agent asked: Did you pick up the money?

“You know, I’m not going to let it sit down there for someone else to get it.”

You’ve seen the headlines: A corrupt official embezzles more than a million dollars from a cash-strapped school district. A corrupt sheriff orders his deputies to work on his barn, but what causes a public official to misbehave?

Why people enter the gray zone

For many years, researchers believed that misconduct was rooted in poverty and parental influences — that criminal parents spawned future crooks. This consensus changed in the late 1930s, in large part because of a sociologist from Indiana named Edwin Sutherland.

Criminologists consider Sutherland the Sigmund Freud of their field. Sutherland was fascinated by fraud committed by the wealthy, whether in corporate boardrooms or high political offices. Sutherland was the first to coin the term “white collar” crime. Generational poverty and parental influences might explain why some steal. But what about the corporate executives? What about well-off people who still milked their positions, often for much larger sums than street thieves?

Sutherland came up with a new hypothesis: Criminal conduct wasn’t necessarily rooted in genetics or parenting. Rather, it was learned, like a language or skill. Environmental factors, such as peer pressure and a culture of dishonesty, often were the most important corruption triggers.

Sutherland’s new approach caught on. One of his protégés, Donald Cressey, studied these external forces and found that most fraud fit in a “fraud triangle.”

The triangle’s first point forms when people feel a sense of lack: financial problems, a need for more money or power, resentment toward an employer.

“They may feel pressure to live better than they’re living, this psychological feeling that they’re falling behind,” said John Warren, vice president of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and co-author of an international fraud study.

The triangle’s second point represents an opportunity, a chance to solve problems by secretly doing something wrong, Warren said. This often takes place at work.

“When you think about it, work is the only place you go where you regularly have access to somebody else’s stuff.”

The triangle’s third point forms when employees justify their wrongful actions. Warren said this point is perhaps the most interesting of the three because it describes a shift in a person’s identity.

“Most fraudsters don’t have criminal records. They pay their taxes, and a lot of the time they’ve worked for government agencies or companies for years. They think of themselves as law abiding — until the point they cross the line.”

Then, to protect their identities, they make excuses, he said.

“Because I don’t conceive of myself as a criminal, I might say, ‘I’m just a guy going through a tough patch right now.' ’’ Or, ‘I need this because everyone’s cheating anyway.’ This lets them cross the line from law abider to law breaker.”

But lying to yourself only goes so far.

“What you often hear is that people get trapped in the crime. It weighs on them every day. They worry that today is the day someone is going to catch me.”

SLED agents interview Laverne Williamson, a Transportation Department foreman in Darlington

SLED agents interview Leverne Williamson, a S.C. Department of Transportation foreman in Darlington, in 2019. SLED/Provided

Back to Darlington

In a conference room, two SLED agents tried to piece together their case, questioning witnesses and recording the interviews on video.

In one video obtained by The Post and Courier, Leverne Williamson, the DOT foreman, described how he’d prayed over accepting the cash and finally decided to report it to his supervisor. This is what had triggered SLED’s involvement in the first place. Over and over, Williamson told agents he was filled with remorse.

“I felt so bad. My conscience was trying to chain me up. I’ve been looking out for the state for 35 years.”

He told the agents he had collected $600 in all and stuffed it in jar at home; the cash was still there.

“I hate the day he (Perry James) asked me to pay for that tree," Williamson said. "I go to church. It bothers me. I’ve got a conscience. It is one of the things you can’t do — take money.” 

Agents twice interviewed James, the other longtime DOT foreman. James made lots of small talk about his work and life. Agents tried to steer him back to the allegations: Did he take any payoffs?

James answered that people sometimes threw small amounts of cash in ditches when he worked in Conway years before.

“I don’t go that route.”

A SLED agent pointed out that Gregory McDonald, the tree service owner, told them he’d given cash to James and Williamson for sending work his way. James became angry.

“He will get confronted,” James told the agents. “Nobody is going to lie on me. You call me a liar, and I’m ready to fight. He’s going to meet me this week. This is my career and my family.”

One of the agents suggested he not do anything rash.

Then, near the end of the second interview, James admitted that he’d taken $20 or $30 about three times when McDonald threw it on the ground.

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” James said, putting on his hat to go. “I don't know. I’m just trying to raise my grandkids, you know.”

Contacted by The Post and Courier, James said he has "a lawsuit in the works" and declined to comment. Williamson didn't respond to requests for comment via mail and phone.

The SLED agents also interviewed McDonald twice about his tree company work.

They asked: Had he given state employees any cash “incentives” for giving him work?

McDonald told the agents he typically dropped money on the ground near the foremen or threw it in their trucks. He estimated that he did this about once a month.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done it many a times with other people for giving me business: a real estate owner; a thank-you-for-your-business type of thing. Even at Sonoco (his job during the week) we have classes, and they tell us not to do that. But vendors come in and take you to lunch.”

The SLED agent asked again whether the foremen accepted the cash, and McDonald said again, “I have tossed it in the car or tossed it on the ground. ... I come back around and look for it later, and it isn’t there.”

The SLED agent said in a nonchalant voice: “They won’t take it, but say if it lands over there, it is what it is. It’s fair game?”

“I’m not trying to get them in trouble for that, but you know what I’m saying, yeah.”

McDonald did not respond to The Post and Courier's requests for comment.

In March 2020, after more than a year, SLED finished its report and sent it to prosecutors.

SLED agents interview Gregory McDonald

SLED agents interview Gregory McDonald in 2019. SLED/Provided

Making it tough for the public

As would happen after the Hartsville investigation, many cases of ethical wrongdoing in government don’t end up before criminal grand juries. Instead, some agencies have their own self-policing mechanisms: hearings, panels and committees. 

Consider the Criminal Justice Academy: The agency offers basic and advanced training to South Carolina’s law enforcement officers. It also maintains a certification process. As part of that program, it collects misconduct allegations, including many that may not be criminal in nature but are serious violations of ethical standards. The agency then decides whether to yank an officer's credentials.

Since 2018, the Criminal Justice Academy handled 622 misconduct cases, according to documents the agency provided to The Post and Courier.

That total includes about 290 allegations of dishonesty and more than 110 cases of physical abuse, excessive force and other practices that put people in danger. These cases run the gamut.

Former Summerville police officer charged with breach of trust

Former Summerville police officer James Bateman. File/Provided

There's the case of Summerville police officer James Bateman, who allegedly faked his radar proficiency test in 2016, then later was accused of depositing $1,500 from the department’s cadet program into his personal account. (He agreed to relinquish his law enforcement certification as part of a guilty plea.)

And there's the one of Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, who bilked taxpayers for pricey conference junkets and had deputies work on his barn while on the clock. (Underwood was suspended after being indicted, then lost his reelection bid. A jury recently convicted Underwood and two of his top deputies.)

The Education Department also tries to police its ranks. It heard more than 460 cases since 2018, a Post and Courier review found.

Many were about teachers who violated their contracts by quitting their jobs early. Others involve a buffet of misconduct, from tax evasion to drug use at school. A surprising number of principals and superintendents ran afoul of ethical standards.

Like the case of Beaufort County School Superintendent Jeffrey Charles Moss. The Ethics Commission cited him twice — in 2016 for using his position to get his wife a $90,000 job as the district's "innovation" director and then again in 2019 for going to conferences on the district’s clock and snagging thousands of dollars in speaking and travel money on the side. Calling his behavior unprofessional, the Education Department issued a public reprimand. He no longer works for the district.

***

While many cases represent serious legal or ethical violations, most are all but hidden from the public.

The Criminal Justice Academy has no searchable roster of misconduct cases. The Ethics Commission has a simple list, one that doesn't describe violations, officials' titles or where they served. 

The Education Department does a tad better, posting summaries on its website. But there’s still no easy way for the public to identify misbehaving educators in their districts — not without going through cases one by one.

And one of the least transparent disciplinary systems involves the state’s judges and magistrates.

Flawed oversight has allowed judges to keep complaints buried and avoid any discipline whatsoever, a 2019 series called "The Untouchables" by The Post and Courier and ProPublica showed. Not a single circuit judge has been publicly disciplined for misconduct in decades, despite more than 1,000 complaints.

Magistrates also enjoy lax oversight, and their ranks include a Greenville lawyer appointed to the bench who siphoned thousands of dollars from accounts he managed and a Jasper County magistrate once accused of forging a title to a Rolls-Royce for a fellow judge.

The Post and Courier found a dozen sitting magistrates disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog, but they aren’t required to disclose their offenses when seeking new terms.

Even the governor is kept in the dark before signing off on their reappointments.

***

This lack of transparency represents a missed chance to deter future misconduct, experts say.

Agencies usually claim that technology and time prevent them from presenting their disciplinary work in more accessible ways, said Jessica Pishko, a lawyer and former fellow at the University of South Carolina who researched corrupt sheriffs. But the real problem is a lack of leadership, she said.

“Many of these agencies are self-policing. So you need a stick, a law that says you have to put your investigation on a website in a month or something like that. Why not have a database where you can look up an officer’s name and see all the misconduct complaints against them?”

That fraud triangle is less likely to form when governments and businesses establish clear lines of behavior and visible consequences when people cross those lines, added John Warren of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners group. Aggressive and repeated ethics training also helps.

“You tell them, 'It’s not OK.' We’ve clearly told you you can’t do this thing.' That makes it harder to rationalize.”

And “without rationalizations, fraudsters almost never do it.”

Case closed

After SLED finished its tree-cutting investigation in Hartsville last year, the case landed in a gray zone of potential punishments.

William B. Rogers Jr., the chief prosecutor in the area, looked at SLED’s findings and decided not to press charges. In a letter last year to SLED, he said that DOT had “already taken appropriate administrative action.”

He ordered the agent to close the file.

Transportation Department Secretary Christy Hall said that any "breach of trust is completely unacceptable," and that the agency took “swift and decisive action."

The department said it fired Perry James, the longtime foreman. The punishment for Williamson, the foreman who had come forward and expressed so much remorse, was more lenient: a five-day suspension without pay. 

The department then asked another agency, the Materials Management Office, to "debar" McDonald's Tree Service — ban it from doing state government work.

Debarment is a rare move, a review of cases shows. One in 2018 involved a Department of Revenue technology contract employee who billed the agency nearly $30,000 for time he didn't work. He was debarred for two years. Another in 2015 was about a contractor for Horry-Georgetown Technical College that altered a subcontractor's quotes to get paid more. The state debarred that company for 90 days.

In the Hartsville case, the Materials Management Office tried to contact McDonald but didn’t get a response.

So in December, the agency barred McDonald's Tree Service and McDonald from doing state work for three years.

There were no press releases, no public statement about what had happened.

The decision was merely placed on an obscure South Carolina agency's website, along with the handful of other cases where people had crossed lines.

Joseph Cranney contributed reporting from Columbia.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

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