COLUMBIA — Five of South Carolina’s 46 sheriffs have faced criminal charges in the past three years, and their colleagues have noticed.
Sheriffs across the state plan to meet in April in Columbia for additional training and talks about what they can do as powerful figures in their counties to stay on the right side of the law.
“I don’t think it is an epidemic, but they want to get together because we don’t want to see any more get in trouble,” said Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs Association.
It had been well over a decade since a sitting South Carolina sheriff had been indicted before Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was charged with dozens of federal drug and racketeering charges in May 2010. Since then, four more sheriffs have faced state misdemeanor charges, three of them accused of misusing state inmate labor. The fourth, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, was charged with third-degree assault and battery after admitting he slapped in the face a handcuffed man who led his deputies on a 120 mph chase in January 2012. The misdemeanor charge was eligible for pre-trial intervention and he remains in office.
The death of another sheriff, Larry Williams in Orangeburg County, likely kept him from facing charges as his county sued his estate, saying he took more than $200,000 in public money and used it on personal expenses.
Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said he doesn’t tolerate criminal behavior, but when he read the indictments against his fellow sheriffs, some of what prosecutors included concerned him and got him asking questions.
Newberry County, like 31 other local governments in South Carolina, gets state inmates to work on maintenance and other tasks in exchange for feeding, housing and medical care. The governments sign a contract about what is expected and what isn’t. But Foster, who has been Newberry County’s chief law officer for 25 years, said the contract appears to have gray areas and contradictions.
“There’s no excuse for an inmate building a house for a sheriff – nothing you can do to justify that,” Foster said. “But I saw where a sheriff got in trouble for allowing one of these inmates a television. My other inmates at the jail have televisions. Do I get in trouble for giving him something other inmates have? I just want clarity so I don’t end up in trouble.”
The latest sheriff charged is Sam Parker in Chesterfield County. He was indicted Wednesday on six misdemeanor charges. Prosecutors said he allowed two hand-picked inmates to live in a dorm, have televisions and an iPad and spend holidays with his family.
Parker’s lawyer said the sheriff had no criminal intent. He said he ran his office with common sense and got tripped up in confusing regulations.
“There may be policy violations and state regulations that were not followed to a T. But these policy violations didn’t include any criminal intent,” defense attorney Johnny Gasser said.
Parker also ran afoul of attitudes that changed, Gasser said. Rural sheriffs have long had close relationships with inmates who earned their trust.
Sheriffs also face plenty of political pressure as the most visible officials in their counties, and they have considerable power in South Carolina. They often decide which cases are pursued and which aren’t. They can fire deputies for any reason. And that creates enemies.
“I tell the new sheriffs, ‘Remember that you aren’t invisible,’” Moore said. “And don’t think everybody likes you.”
Moore said the most recent sheriffs arrested in South Carolina were taken down by investigations started by angry foes. A romantic entanglement with his new wife led to complaints against Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth. Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin’s probe started with an anonymous letter to the governor’s office. And authorities began looking into Parker after an inmate upset that he was sent back to a regular state prison turned on the man who prosecutors said once agreed to fly him to the coast to see his family and had him over for holiday dinners.
Blake Taylor, who oversees the Correction Department program that sends state inmates to local governments, promises to listen to any concerns sheriffs have. He points out that the sheriffs who got in trouble for how they used inmates also committed other acts.
“I don’t know of anything we’ve done to tighten down or change the rules,” Taylor said.
Before he became sheriff, Foster worked in law enforcement in Newberry County for about 15 years. He remembers when he started in the early 1970s, the sheriff lived in a home behind the jail and had inmates that cooked, cleaned the house and took care of children.
Foster knows that times change, and he said he wants the rules for inmate work to change with them. State inmates are prohibited from using computers in local jails. But Newberry County’s law library is now almost all online, and courts have ruled that prisoners must have access to legal materials. Also, Foster said it doesn’t make sense to give an inmate who might know how to fix computers no way to use those skills.
And he wants the rules applied to all elected officials with common sense.
“I know in basic principles, the contract says it is wrong,” he said. “But if you bought an inmate an extra sandwich, or gave an inmate some cookies at Christmas time – is that something that you would put a person in jail for?”