SLED chief of 20 years to retire this month

Robert Stewart plans to start consulting business

COLUMBIA -- State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart -- South Carolina's top law enforcement official for the past 20 years -- will retire at the end of the month.

Stewart, 62, whose 45-year law enforcement career began as a parking meter cadet in Cheraw, plans to start a consulting business, Stewart, Konduros & Associates, according to a statement released Friday.

"There are many ways to serve God and country," Stewart said in the statement. "I consider it to be a calling to become a law enforcement officer and a sacred mission to be a SLED agent. I have attempted to do my best to lead SLED to be an impartial and professional agency in which all South Carolinians can be proud."

Attempts to reach Stewart, who also has been the state's homeland security director, for further comment were unsuccessful late Friday night.

Gov. Mark Sanford likely will appoint an interim chief until the S.C. Senate returns to session in January. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate itself will vote on a nominee for a permanent successor.

Sanford could look to the federal level for a new SLED chief if history is any indicator some law enforcement observers say. In 2004, Sanford tapped James Schweitzer, then South Carolina's top FBI official, to head the state Department of Public Safety.

Sanford and Stewart were recently at odds over $5.3 million in Statehouse security improvements Stewart had proposed. Sanford said the money could be better spent combating the state's high violent crime rate.

Stewart's concern about his mother's poor health played a large part in his decision, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Stewart's friend for more than 30 years.

"She's in very bad health," Lott said. "She's a very independent woman, and it's difficult for him to take care of her while he's at SLED."

'A cop's heart'

Lott described Stewart as "probably the most respected law enforcement official in this whole state.

"He's always kept SLED independent of political influence. He's always done the right thing. His heart is a cop's heart."

Some law enforcement officials were caught off guard by the retirement, including U.S. Marshal Johnny Mack Brown, the former Greenville County sheriff who was a contender for the SLED chief's post when Stewart was first appointed in 1987.

When he was sheriff, Brown said, Stewart was always available to respond to his department's needs whether for laboratory work or anything else.

"He is the epitome of a law enforcement professional," Brown said. "He's always conducted himself in a professional way. He will be missed."

Stewart was in the running to become South Carolina's U.S. Marshal, but changed his mind after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts, who also was a contender for the SLED chief's post in 1987, credited Stewart with modernizing SLED's crime laboratory and being the "driving force" behind the opening of the S.C. Computer Crime Center.

Metts and Brown said Stewart is referred to in the law enforcement community as the 47th sheriff.

Longtime Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian said when he was the 5th Circuit solicitor, he was getting outside pressure to drop the income tax evasion case against former USC president James Holderman.

But Stewart, whose agency investigated the case, told him, "You gotta feed everybody from the same spoon," Harpootlian recalled. Several weeks after Holderman was convicted in 1991, Harpootlian said, Stewart sent him a spoon in the mail.

"He's one of the most diligent, honest human beings I've ever known," Harpootlian said.

A native of Washington, D.C., who grew up in Cheraw, he began his SLED career in 1975 as a white-collar crime investigator, and he made a name for himself in a Florence County case in which a family court clerk was convicted of embezzling county funds.

After joining SLED, Stewart moved to Columbia, completed work on a bachelor's degree and earned a master's in public administration from the University of South Carolina. Stewart also is a 1974 graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

Eleventh Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers said Stewart was a stabilizing force when his predecessor, legendary SLED Chief J.P. "Pete" Strom died.

"He's the epitome of the chief law enforcement officer of any state in the United States," Myers said. "Someone will fill his position, but he can't be replaced."