COLUMBIA — Sheriffs getting in trouble has been standard fare in South Carolina, not quite as ubiquitous as barbecue or football, but always there.
From Fairfield County Sheriff Bubba Montgomery, who was convicted in 1992 of using prisoners to work on his lake home, to Williamsburg County Sheriff Theo McFarlin, sent to prison on cocaine charges in 1998, to Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin, sent to prison in 2011 for taking bribes from alleged drug dealers, some sheriffs have made the wrong kind of headlines.
But in the past year or so, a whole new passel of sheriffs appears to have outdone themselves in getting on the wrong side of the law.
“What I don’t like about it, it sets a bad example. If a sheriff does something bad, his officers might think they can do it, too,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
Setting a horrid example was possibly just what Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon did early last year when he slapped a handcuffed obnoxious motorist who had led police on a dangerous high-speed chase. The State Law Enforcement Division charged Cannon with third-degree assault and battery. He apologized and enrolled in a pre-trial intervention program available to first-time offenders. He remains sheriff.
Then, a few weeks ago, SLED arrested one of Cannon’s deputies and charged him with assault – the same charge as the sheriff’s – for allegedly slapping around a motorist, according to a warrant in the case. That case is pending.
Four other sheriffs have gotten into more serious trouble.
Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent known as a straight arrow, said he is “saddened and disappointed” at the lapses shown by his fellow sheriffs.
“These sheriffs are dropping like flies,” Matthew said. “It taints all of us – just like when a priest gets caught up in something and it hurts the entire Catholic church.”
Chesterfield Co. sheriff
Matthews pointed out that a sheriff he thinks highly of, Sam Parker of Chesterfield County, is fighting the charges against him and may well be innocent.
In a 20-page state grand jury indictment, Parker is charged with letting inmates have unsupervised visits with women and sleep outside the jail with access to TV and alcohol. He is charged with four counts of misconduct in office and two counts of furnishing contraband to inmates.
Parker’s attorney, Johnny Gasser, said last week that Parker may have violated some policies but he didn’t break laws and intends to fight the charges. “He’s innocent,” Gasser said.
Gasser represented another sheriff, Jason Booth, who was indicted last year on charges of misusing state prison inmates who were at his Saluda County jail.
Evidence in the case said Booth used a convicted methamphetamine trafficker to dig a pond and construct a shed on Booth’s private property. In return, the inmate was allowed to leave the detention center, have conjugal visits with his girlfriend, have use of an SUV and attend parties on Booth’s property.
In August, Booth pled guilty to misconduct in office. He received a $1,000 fine and five years of probation.
Booth’s guilty plea conviction surprised even John Crangle, president of the S.C. Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
“I thought Jason was a good young sheriff,” Crangle said.
But Crangle said, “the worst sheriff, as far as I can tell, was Sheriff Larry Williams down there in Orangeburg County.”
Williams died in 2010. Only last year did investigators discover he had apparently stolen some $200,000 in county money, taking reimbursements from state and federal sources and spreading them to 11 bank accounts, according to a lawsuit Orangeburg County filed against his estate.
Jeff Moore, head of the South Carolina Sheriffs Association for 32 years, said about 35 sheriffs run county jails, and that’s where a lot of problems come in. Under a state program, sheriffs can get skilled convicts to come back to their counties and put them to work on public property.
“It can save a county literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It’s free labor. But you can’t take them home or have them work on your pickup. That’s where some sheriffs have gotten in trouble,” Moore said.