Legislators OK special probe into S.C. prison system

COLUMBIA -- Trained auditors and state police will investigate complaints against the state prison system after a legislative committee on Monday took itself out of an increasingly harsh dispute with the governor's team.

Critics of the committee's work said the decision removes politics from what Corrections Department leaders and the governor's office have called a "witch hunt" intended to embarrass the executive branch.

The move also means the public is unlikely to hear open testimony about allegations the agency is run in an unsafe manner, that inmates are abused and that employees work in a hostile environment.

Committee chairman Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said he hopes to have a Legislative Audit Council report early next year when the Legislature reconvenes. The council is the investigative arm of the General Assembly.

The eight senators on the rare, investigative panel had intended all along to forward their findings to auditors and the State Law Enforcement Division, Fair said.

"We're trying to find out what's going on and to help the Department of Corrections and the people who work there ... to have a safe and secure work environment," Fair told a crowd in a Gressette office building meeting room.

Attacks on the committee and leaks of a preliminary report of complaints "hijacked" the panel's work and rushed its original plan, Fair said.

Committee member Sen. Kay Patterson, D-Richland, said he expects no more legislative hearings and an end to "showboating."

Ozmint demands apology

Prisons director Jon Ozmint and a spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford have blasted the committee as a thin disguise for a personal attack from Ozmint critics and political fodder aimed at Sanford.

On Monday, Ozmint held a 30-minute news conference before the hearing to attack the panel for "cheap shots" and wasting taxpayer money.

He called a 12-page report made public over the weekend "trash." He demanded a written apology from the committee.

Ozmint accused the staff and the committee of "shielding lawbreakers and potentially obstructing justice" because they listened to complaints from prison workers, ex-employees, inmates and their relatives of possible illegal conduct within the agency without immediately directing them to law enforcement.

After the committee decided to send the matter to auditors and SLED, Ozmint said he could live with that outcome.

The staff's report, obtained by The State, other media outlets and prison leaders, states they listened to firsthand accounts of:

• Security lapses that contributed to five high-profile escapes including inmates who wrote their intentions in advance; a hostage taking in which an employee was raped after officials did not act quickly enough;

• Use of stun guns on restrained inmates, and prisoners suffering broken bones from abuse;

• Misuse of resources to benefit Ozmint and select officials;

• Use of lie detectors to trace leaks, and fears of retaliation against critics.

The report stated staffers did not accept hearsay but had not independently substantiated the allegations. That was to be done through testimony under oath, or through state auditors or SLED.

The hearings have been hotly contested from the beginning. Fair said Monday that Sanford blis- tered him in June for calling for them.

"I got called to the woodshed by the governor," Fair said after the committee meeting.

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer called that "a completely inaccurate characterization."

Fair was asked what he intended to accomplish, Sawyer said.

Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, and a frequent Ozmint critic, pressed the panel to continue its work. "The role of the Legislature is oversight, and I think we have to exercise that," he said.

But committee member Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, called the report "completely ludicrous and unfounded."

The committee's only remaining work is to draft letters to auditors and SLED suggesting its priorities, Fair said.

The Legislative Audit Council must agree to conduct the inquiry, but Fair said he does not expect the request to be denied.

SLED chief Robert Stewart said agents will follow protocol get legal guidance from prosecutors and open a preliminary inquiry that could lead to a full criminal investigation if there is enough evidence.

Sawyer said the governor agrees with the committee's decision.

"We think that what they decided today is a far more legitimate way of doing this rather than have a bunch of overzealous Senate staffers compiling baseless, anonymous accusations and leaking them to the media."