South Carolina *Crooked Sheriffs*??? You Don't F*cking Say!
South Carolina has produced some awesome local reporting lately. It's a vital public service because South Carolina law enforcement is corrupt AF. We shouldn't paint with too broad a brush, though. It's not like all the state's sheriffs are accused of breaking the law, just one in four.
The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, published an expose this weekend regarding rampant criminal acts among the state's sheriffs. We're talking embezzlement, bribery, and accusations of sexual assault. The newspaper requested spending records from all of the state's counties under the Freedom of Information Act, or what public officials like to call the "Oh Shit! Burn Everything!" Act. There's too much scuzziness to cover in one post so we're going to focus on a few of our favorite lowlights.
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood is black, but the color that matters most to him is green. He blew almost $6,000 of public money to fly first class to a "convention" in Reno, Nevada, a second-class Las Vegas. Chester County is basically flat broke, with significantly higher unemployment and lower household income than the national average.
Underwood and Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse claimed they were taking two other deputies with them, but instead they brought their wives. Once in Reno, the grift began in earnest. Underwood upgraded his room to one with a king-size bed, so his feet wouldn't "hang off the mattress." We're relatively tall so we can feel for him, but we've sucked it up and slept in the fetal position in hotel beds, especially on business trips.
Underwood also hired an expensive chauffeur to drive the group to and from the airport. Brother never heard of Uber? Worse, the hotel offered a free shuttle to the airport that was all of two miles away. The trip cost more than $11,000. Underwood flat-out admitted that money raided from the drug forfeiture account would pay for it all. Those are public accounts, not a vacation slush fund.
Dig this: Underwood and Sprouse told the Post and Courier that they paid for their wives' fancy-smancy flights "out of pocket," but these geniuses forgot that checks have dates on them and theirs were dated March 7, two years after the trip and one day after the Post and Courier asked them about the expenses.
Flying first-class is illegal for most state employees, but no one really understands the rules governing sheriffs. It's apparently a "legal gray area," which was justification enough for Underwood to fly first-class to DC last year for another sheriff's conference and opportunity to sleep in a more comfortable bed. It is a seven-hour drive to DC, so he could've road tripped his crooked ass there. A nonstop flight from Columbia, South Carolina, is less than two hours. There's barely enough time to enjoy the free cocktails.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is another big spender. He racked up $16,500 in charges on his department credit card at steakhouses and barbecue joints since 2015. This includes more than $10,600 at a single Golden Corral in Columbia. That's not a bill. That's a down payment. He also found it necessary to use his department's narcotics fund to purchase 400 insulated cups for $5,000. Gotta keep the sweet tea cool. Lott also paid the steep membership dues ($13,000) for a private club in Columbia with funds from his campaign. That can't be legal, right?
Sheriffs have a complicated history stemming back to when they were the villain in Robin Hood stories. There is a long list of examples of sheriffs violating the very laws they were meant to uphold. The sheriff is normally an elected position, but if you consider the current "person in the White House," you'll appreciate that voters aren't always the best judge of character.
The South Carolina Constitution states that employees "serve at the pleasure" of sheriffs, which is a strange term unless lap dances are involved. This, combined with weak whistleblower laws, makes it hard for honest staff to speak out about the metric shit ton of corruption surrounding them.
"There's a tremendous opportunity for criminal activity," said George Glassmeyer, a former deputy in Lexington and Richland counties who later became a prosecutor and instructor at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. "You have access to jail inmates, and you can use their labor. You have access to seized money and drugs. And everyone is obedient because they know they can get fired if they question anything you do."
In 1988, South Carolina voters "tightened" the standards for sheriffs: They now have to be "free of felonies and have at least five years of law enforcement training and a high school diploma." This makes you wonder how many sheriffs prior to this were ex-cons and/or high school dropouts. They still wound up with winners like Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt. He left a crash site in his county pickup truck at speeds of 108 miles per hour. His resulting DUI didn't compel him to step down. He finally resigned a month later after documents were made public regarding allegations of sexual harassment.
Recently, in our hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, a grand jury indicted Will Lewis, the now-suspended sheriff, on charges of misconduct, perjury, and obstruction. His assistant, Savannah Nabors, claimed in a lawsuit that Lewis sexually harassed her on a business trip. Lewis insisted the "affair" was consensual, because they always do. Nabors secretly recorded conversations with Lewis, as people in consensual relationships often do.
"You wanna go to Reno? You wanna do that?" Lewis said on a recording Nabors made of some of their conversations.
"That's too risky. I feel like if somebody were to find that out ..." Nabors said as they discussed sharing a room.
"Ain't nobody going to find that out because ain't nobody gonna be there from South Carolina; I mean nobody's going to find out; That's the whole point." He added in another recording: "There's no paper trail for any of this. ... I want time away. I want you to myself. I want to be able and sit around on the beach and drink on company time and just ..."
Apparently, Nabors just pointed a tape recorder at Lewis and politely asked him to confess to ALL THE CRIMES.
Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Lewis, but he didn't actually have the authority to fire him without a conviction. All he could do was drag him on Twitter.
Public shaming is usually most effective on people who possess shame. In January, Lewis asked the courts to toss out his criminal indictments. His lawyer, Rauch Wise, which we suppose is a name people have, contends that the charges of obstruction are "too vague" and "overly broad." He can't even begin to figure out how to mount a defense (no, seriously). "My lawyer's a moron" is an interesting legal strategy, but that's South Carolina for you. We really miss our home sometimes.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).