ANDERSON, S.C. — A lawyer for a former U.S. Secret Service agent arrested as he ran for Oconee County sheriff said the charge was a plot by local authorities and state police to knock him out of the race last year.
The attorney for James Bartee said Friday at a hearing he wants prosecutors to turn over evidence that could prove investigators trumped up a charge against Bartee of attempting to kidnap a judge because they wanted someone else in the office.
“We believe that it is part of a government conspiracy to basically preclude this man from participating in the election process. We believe that conspiracy runs to the highest levels of law enforcement in the state. We believe it runs to the highest levels of Oconee County,” lawyer Jake Moore said.
Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson quickly cut Moore off, reminding the attorney the hearing was to decide whether Bartee was arrested properly and to make sure prosecutors had turned over all evidence. He said arguments over whether to dismiss the charge will come later.
“I’m not going today to go on some witch hunt on some conspiracy that you and your client and his friends have,” Nicholson said.
Bartee was involved in one of South Carolina’s strangest sheriff’s races in 2012. All four Republican candidates were accused of some sort of wrongdoing, whether it be in their law enforcement job or criminal in nature. Then all four men were tossed off the ballot for not filing their paperwork properly.
Some of the candidates decided to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, and former deputy Mike Crenshaw won the race, replacing a sheriff who had been in office for 20 years.
Bartee said powerful officials in Oconee County didn’t want an outsider looking at what happened at the sheriff’s office over the past two decades.
But investigators said Bartee went to an informant and paid him $185 to kidnap a former judge who was going to testify Bartee didn’t have the law credentials needed to be sheriff. Bartee was arrested during the hearing to weigh his qualifications.
Moore said South Carolina law allows someone to be arrested only under certain circumstances during a court proceeding. Nicholson did not rule on that motion.
Moore said authorities have a tape of Bartee’s conversation with the informant and Bartee is heard telling the man not to kidnap the judge, and he said investigators found marked bills on Bartee where the informant gave him the money back during the taped meeting.
Moore also said the tape was vague and authorities were stretching to show it was involved in the crime.
Moore said he wanted to hear the original. He also said investigators took a transcript of the tape back to the informant so he could edit and fill in gaps where there was silence during the conversation.
Solicitor Chrissy Adams said Moore could listen to the original recording. She said they shared all the evidence they have so far.
“We have nothing to hide,” Adams said.
After the hearing, Moore said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel called the judge overseeing the case last year in the middle of the night to influence the hearing. A SLED spokesman said the agency wouldn’t comment.
Bartee loaned himself more than $34,000 for his run. His campaign had billboards and a website showing him on presidential protection details for Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
He said he didn’t try to run as a petition candidate or a write-in after he was kicked off the ballot because he didn’t want to put his family through more strain. Bartee said his arrest cost him his thriving private investigator business and a teaching job at Clemson University.