SALUDA, S.C. — Details about what led prosecutors to accept a plea deal from a former sheriff that left him only paying a $900 fine for using inmate labor to build a party shed on his land will be kept secret.
Jason Booth, once the top lawman in Saluda County, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor – not a felony. That means he could work in law enforcement again in South Carolina.
The only details the public can review about the case are the indictment, sentencing sheet and Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr.’s less than six-minute review of the facts of the case at Booth’s guilty plea and sentencing. That leaves plenty of questions unanswered, including whether Booth might have impeded the investigation or misused other inmates in the past.
The report compiled by the State Law Enforcement Division agent investigating the case, which would normally be released under the Freedom of Information Act, won’t be made public. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said state law requires any testimony or evidence put before the state grand jury to remain secret.
The prosecutor who covers Saluda County had an obvious conflict, so the case was turned over to Wilson’s office. The attorney general took the case to the state grand jury, but turned it over to Thurmond’s office because of another conflict.
When Booth, 39, pleaded guilty in August, Thurmond said in court that the inmate, a handyman, was given perks such as time out of prison and conjugal visits with his girlfriend in exchange for doing several projects on Booth’s property. But his presentation of the facts left lingering questions.
The prosecutor suggested Booth told several people that they didn’t need to tell the SLED agent investigating him about the inmate working on his land. But Thurmond never named those people or gave any additional details that could help determine how hard Booth tried to hinder the investigation.
Thurmond also referenced a report from 2005 that warned the sheriff after a previous problem with how he used state inmates. The details of that report are also hidden from public view.
The SLED report should be public even if it was used by the state grand jury, First Amendment lawyer Jay Bender said.
“That report became public the moment it was created,” Bender said.
Thurmond refused to answer questions immediately after Booth pleaded guilty in August, including why he took a plea that involved no jail time. In an interview earlier this month, Thurmond said the sentence was appropriate because most of the case was based on a convicted felon testifying against a sitting sheriff. He added that Booth was a first-time offender, didn’t steal money from taxpayers and didn’t commit a violent offense.
The prosecutor refused to talk about whether Booth agreed to the plea because it made it easier to keep his law enforcement credentials.
“I’m not trying to be an obstructionist to your story, I just need you to understand that there are criminal penalties associated with the release of grand jury material beyond the factual basis for the guilty plea that we put on the record in criminal court,” Thurmond said.
Anyone convicted of a felony or sentenced to a year or more in jail for any crime cannot be a police officer under South Carolina law. Someone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” also can’t be a certified officer, but the misconduct in office charge to which Booth pleaded guilty doesn’t always fall under that rule, according to an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office.
At his guilty plea, Booth’s lawyer said he would never work in law enforcement again. This week, defense attorney Johnny Gasser corrected the earlier reports that Booth would have to serve a year of probation, but he refused to talk about the case further.
“He’s already moved forward with his life,” Gasser said.
During Booth’s plea, Thurmond said both the SLED agent investigating the case and SLED Chief Mark Keel agreed with the prosecution’s recommendation that Booth not go to jail.
But SLED spokesman Thom Berry said Keel reviewed only a few documents about the case.
The chief was trying to keep his distance from the investigation because he worked with Booth’s father for decades at SLED. Keel did tell Thurmond he wanted Booth to plead guilty to a felony charge he was indicted for, but he left the final decision on what to do with the case up to the prosecutor, Berry said.