Chester magistrate, wife of sheriff, suspended over alleged conflict of interest

Angel Underwood, center, with her husband as he was sworn in as Chester County sheriff after his 2012 election.
Angel Underwood, center, with her husband as he was sworn in as Chester County sheriff after his 2012 election. adys@heraldonline.com

The state Supreme Court has suspended Chester County Magistrate Judge Angel Underwood while court administrators investigate an alleged conflict of interest in her hearing cases involving the sheriff’s office, which is led by her husband.

Underwood’s lawyer, Jake Moore of Columbia, confirmed that she was suspended last week, but no hearing has been scheduled. The Supreme Court acted after state court administrators filed a petition based on a complaint from a source that remained unknown Monday.

Underwood has done nothing wrong, Moore said, calling the complaint “politically motivated” and a “hatchet job.”

State Sen. Creighton Coleman, the Democrat who represents Chester County, told The Herald that court officials in Columbia told him by phone Friday that Underwood has been suspended, but they did not tell him why.

State offices were closed on Monday for a state holiday, but the Judicial Department’s website lists Underwood as being under “interim suspension,” with no further details provided.

Underwood and her husband, Sheriff Alex Underwood, declined to comment, referring questions to Moore.

Underwood, a former State Law Enforcement Division agent, has been a magistrate for four years, having taken the bench the year before her husband, Alex Underwood, was elected sheriff in late 2012.

She routinely does not hear cases involving the sheriff’s office because of the potential conflict of interest. Chester County is served by four magistrates, two full-time and two part-time, but there is currently one vacancy.

Court administrators told Underwood her suspension centers on her hearing about 20 cases for which she was the only magistrate available, Moore said. Underwood heard the cases after telling the parties involved that she had a conflict, he said, and all parties agreed to have her preside anyway. There have been four or five other cases in which Underwood told the parties involved of a conflict, he said.

Moore said the suspension came out of nowhere just days after Underwood’s four-year term expired at the end of April and she is up for reappointment.

“There was not case, as far as we can determine, that she didn’t announce she had a conflict of interest,” Moore said.

Underwood has no record of any complaints against her, Moore said, but she wants to know who made the complaint and why.

“This stinks to the high heaven,” he said. “It is a hatchet job.”

Sheriff Underwood has waged several high-profile political battles with other leaders in Chester County, including the County Council and school board. He also “declared war” on gangs following the November shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams, a crime for which several alleged gang members have been charged.

Because of Underwood’s relationship with the sheriff, Moore said, she generally has presided over criminal cases brought by the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies, as well as civil matters, but not cases handled by the sheriff’s office.

In South Carolina, the governor appoints magistrates after receiving recommendations from the state senator representing the county the judge will serve. The governor’s office has no role in disciplinary actions. That is solely a judiciary function.

Chester County’s magistrate roster has been in flux since the retirement of former Chief Magistrate Dianne Moore in March. Judge Moore retired because state law does not allow judges to stay on after age 72. The state Supreme Court appointed Magistrate Yale Zamore interim chief magistrate until Moore’s replacement is named.

Don Worthington contributed.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065