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UNCOVERED: Judges keep seats as complaints pile up; decisions still pending in matter involving local municipal judge

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This story was produced in collaboration with two Uncovered partners, The News & Reporter of Chester and The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg.

South Carolina’s secretive, slow-moving system for policing its judges allows the accused to remain on the bench for years despite serious questions about their character and impartiality, an Uncovered investigation has found.

In one case, a Chester County judge still sits as a magistrate despite persistent complaints that her conflicts with the sheriff’s department make her position untenable. Court officials haven’t acted on a grievance detailing the concerns in the two years since it was filed.

Another judge in Orangeburg County continues to preside in municipal court despite a lengthy investigation into allegations that she siphoned thousands of dollars from a sale of family property. That matter was first brought to South Carolina’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel in December 2018.

Records documenting those and other complaints, obtained by The Post and Courier, offer a rare glimpse into the kind of allegations that South Carolina allows judges to face in secret.

The Disciplinary Counsel’s office, an investigative arm of the state Supreme Court, receives more than 200 complaints against the state’s judges each year. But those investigations almost never lead to a judge being removed or even publicly reprimanded.

It’s one of myriad ways that South Carolina allows government officials to police themselves and escape public scrutiny. Through its investigative series Uncovered, The Post and Courier has partnered with local newspapers to crack the lid on the state’s broken system of ethical oversight.

It’s a state where serious allegations of illegal or improper behavior by police, teachers, mayors, county council members and other officials are kept tucked away in government offices in Columbia, or shielded from the public entirely.

But, as The Post and Courier first revealed in a joint 2019 investigation with ProPublica, few systems are as lenient and cloaked in secrecy as the one overseeing the state’s judges.

Bound by confidentiality protections that far exceed what South Carolina offers to other officials, the state’s disciplinary office shares its work with no one. And unlike almost every other state, South Carolina has gone decades without publicly sanctioning any of the state’s powerful circuit judges, despite more than 1,000 complaints, the news organizations found.

The latest cases show how judges of South Carolina’s lower courts also escape public scrutiny. Magistrates and municipal judges, collectively the state’s busiest judges, handle hundreds of thousands of low-level criminal and civil cases a year.

They do not have to be attorneys, a profession steeped in legal and ethical training. About three-quarters of the state’s magistrates lack a law license, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported in 2019.

Now, confidential records obtained by The Post and Courier show that sitting judges have been accused of abusing their positions or breaking the law. Yet the judges have remained on the bench for years while disciplinary officials pore over the allegations in secret.

It’s nearly impossible for the public to determine how seriously the allegations are taken. The disciplinary agency shields access to its investigative files.

And there’s no way of knowing if delays result from understaffing: A spokeswoman would not even tell a reporter how many full-time employees work for the agency. The agency also declined to make its top official, John Nichols, available for an interview.

Left in the dark are the public, the people who file complaints and even politicians who are responsible for appointing judges.

As a municipal judge, Chasity Avinger is appointed by local officials in Orangeburg, Santee and Holly Hill. Her handling of thousands of dollars in proceeds in a real estate matter drew a two-year probe by the State Law Enforcement Division and a case before the disciplinary agency that is still pending.

Avinger told The Post and Courier the dispute over family money had nothing to do with her role as a judge. She denied doing anything illegal.

But the mayors of the three towns where she presides had no idea about the investigations into her conduct. Each first learned of the issue when contacted by The Post and Courier in June.

“I know absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about,” Holly Hill Mayor William Johnson said. “Whoever did this oversight didn’t think enough to call the mayor who she works for.”

Debts unpaid

When someone decides to file a complaint against a judge, the disciplinary agency warns them: The process will take time, and investigators don’t always stay in contact as the probe runs its course.

It’s not surprising that some cases drag on for years, said Greg Adams, a professor emeritus with the University of South Carolina School of Law who specializes in legal ethics.

Some of the cases are exceedingly complex and labor intensive, Adams said. Still, he added, “Does the system work as expeditiously as it ought to? The answer is no.”

Consider the 2018 complaint filed against Avinger, a licensed attorney since 2011.

Avinger’s brother-in-law, Michael Bloom, accused her of stealing thousands of dollars in real estate funds. He sent the complaint to the Disciplinary Counsel’s office, which polices lawyers in addition to judges.

Bloom also shared the complaint with law enforcement, and SLED opened a probe.

The family had obtained ownership of five properties from Bloom’s father-in-law, but learned they owed thousands in back taxes. To clear those debts, they sold one of the properties for roughly $5,600.

The proceeds would have covered nearly all the family’s back taxes in 2018. Avinger would later acknowledge that, as the lawyer in the family, she agreed to handle the payments.

But when the $5,600 arrived, Avinger deposited the money into her and her husband’s bank account. The family’s debts went unpaid.

Bloom, 49, and his wife, Danni Bloom, 48, were relying on Avinger.

The family, including Avinger’s husband, had struck a deal with a real estate agent to list three of the remaining inherited properties for sale for $50,000, a contract shows.

The Blooms planned to put their share of the proceeds into an account for their 23-year-old son, who lives with severe autism, the couple said in an interview.

“He’s going to need 24-hour care for the rest of his life,” Danni Bloom said. “We were busy getting our estate planning in order to ensure that after we have passed on that he will be taken care of.”

Meanwhile, Avinger had begun missing payments on a property she bought in 2017 for her law office, records show. And she owed thousands of dollars to her sister through a separate private loan. A judge would eventually hand down a $36,250 judgment against Avinger.

She later told The Post and Courier she ran into trouble after incurring costs for her family’s health care. Still, she had assured the family she would pay off their back taxes with the $5,600 from the initial sale.

Later, she made the same promise to SLED. “I understand I’m responsible for those taxes,” Avinger told agents in June 2019. “I understand moving forward those taxes have to be paid and that I have to pay them.”

But then the end of 2019 came and went, and Avinger still hadn’t made the payments. Agents attempted to question Avinger again, but she didn’t return their messages, the investigative records show. In her response to The Post and Courier, Avinger insisted she answered all the agents’ questions and cooperated with the investigation.

The debts unpaid, the county seized the family’s three properties and sold them at tax sales. The $50,000 listing, and the Blooms' hopes to put that money away for their son, went up in smoke.

‘No recourse’

After Avinger failed to pay the taxes in 2019, law enforcement considered an arrest, according to SLED agents’ notes in the investigative file.

But prosecutors and law enforcement ultimately declined to bring any charges against the judge. “This matter appears to be civil in nature and would best be resolved in civil court,” 14th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton wrote in November 2020.

Thornton told The Post and Courier the case was reviewed by prosecutors in the 14th and 1st Circuit’s joint Public Integrity Unit, and that the decision not to prosecute was unanimous. The Blooms have not sued in civil court.

In response to emailed questions from The Post and Courier, Avinger denied doing anything improper. She said she deposited the money into a bank account she shared with her husband because a portion of the money belonged to him. She did not explain why she declined to pay the property taxes.

The Blooms have one property left from their inheritance. With help from two outside partners, they are now trying to sell that land to collect some money to help care for their son.

As they prepare for that sale, the Blooms are also still waiting for a ruling from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

After receiving the couple’s complaint in December 2018, disciplinary officials opted to wait for SLED’s investigation to conclude before proceeding with their own probe, notes from a SLED agent indicate.

Ginny Jones, the disciplinary agency’s spokeswoman, would not explain whether that decision falls in line with the agency’s policies. But Michael Virzi, a former disciplinary investigator, told The Post and Courier that the agency commonly waits for criminal investigations to run their course in order to avoid duplicating work.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whose office worked on the Avinger case with the 14th circuit, said law enforcement’s decision to decline prosecution should have little to no bearing on the disciplinary agency’s investigation of Avinger’s conduct.

First contacted on June 22, Jones said Nichols, the disciplinary agency’s top official, was unavailable for an interview. She requested questions be sent in writing, then declined to address several key issues.

All the Bloom family knows is that their complaint, 2-1/2 years later, is still pending.

“It’s like we have no recourse,” Danni Bloom said. “There’s nothing that the little man can do to stand up to attorneys and judges.”

Questionable actions

Closer to the disciplinary offices in Columbia, Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood has held on to her job as one of the county’s five magistrates despite a string of controversies.

First, the Supreme Court suspended her for a year as disciplinary investigators discovered she had failed to disqualify herself from more than 100 cases brought by the Chester County Sheriff’s Office while her husband, Alex Underwood, was the elected sheriff.

Then, the Chester News & Reporter revealed that Underwood successfully petitioned then-County Supervisor Shane Stuart to pay her $39,000 for the time she missed. The lump sum payment was legally questionable, since the Supreme Court had already advised the county it didn’t owe Underwood the money. And it wasn’t approved by the county council, whose members later asked the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the payment.

In 2019, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported that Underwood flew first class on the public’s dime to a conference in Reno, Nevada, on trips arranged by her husband, the former sheriff. Federal prosecutors eventually charged Alex Underwood, alleging he abused his power and skimmed public money to finance the trips.

Whether disciplinary officials have asked Angel Underwood to explain her actions or her use of public money is anybody’s guess. The agency declined to answer questions about the case.

Angel Underwood was never a defendant in the federal case, though her name came up repeatedly in her husband’s trial. Alex Underwood was convicted on seven corruption and abuse charges. He awaits sentencing.

More complaints

Angel Underwood's ties to her husband's department led to a 2019 complaint from one of her colleagues, former Chester County Magistrate Barbara Cameron.

In that complaint, obtained by The Post and Courier, Cameron alleged Angel Underwood remained “constantly involved” in the operations of the sheriff’s department while her husband ran it. The judge huddled behind closed doors with top deputies and helped forward crime tips for deputies to follow up on, Cameron wrote in the complaint.

Angel Underwood even presided over a drunken-driving case brought by her husband’s office, then forged Cameron’s name on a court document to cover it up, Cameron alleged.

“The appearance of impartiality and fairness between the departments was laughable,” Cameron wrote in the complaint, which disciplinary officials have yet to resolve. Angel Underwood also secretly helped deputies draft a complaint against two of her colleagues on the bench, The Post and Courier and ProPublica reported at the time.

In the interim, the county’s new sheriff has filed his own complaint against the judge, alleging Angel Underwood has a bias against the department since her husband’s 2019 ouster.

Sheriff Max Dorsey noted he defeated Alex Underwood in the 2020 election, and that five of Dorsey’s deputies testified in the former sheriff’s trial. Dorsey did not cite specific examples, but in a March 15 complaint insisted that Angel Underwood’s handling of any sheriff’s department matters has “great potential to be unfair.”

Until recently, Angel Underwood held the post of chief magistrate. That meant she was in charge of her fellow judges, though held no formal authority to discipline or sanction them. Through his annual selections of chief judges in every county, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty removed Angel Underwood as Chester’s chief magistrate on July 1.

Still, for weeks after her husband’s trial, magistrates under Angel Underwood’s supervision remained tasked with considering criminal warrants submitted by Dorsey’s department. In an interview, Dorsey questioned why those judges had rejected what the sheriff considered to be legitimate requests.

Records from one case, obtained by the newspaper through an open-records request, show a deputy magistrate denied an arrest warrant for a man who published several Facebook posts calling for Chester police and sheriff’s deputies to be killed.

In another, a magistrate rejected a warrant request for a man who allegedly trespassed onto a woman’s property, exposed himself to her and then peed on her husband’s truck.

“I can’t think of another reason why they would be rejected,” Dorsey told the newspaper.

The disciplinary agency didn’t open an investigation into Dorsey’s complaint until June 1, about three weeks after The Post and Courier began asking questions about the issue.

Underwood’s attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson, declined to comment on what he described as a “false complaint.”

“Our detailed response to the meritless complaint will be contained in our response that we will submit to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in a timely manner,” he said.

The Post and Courier asked Beatty if he had any concerns that the matters against Angel Underwood are still pending. Through Jones, the courts spokeswoman, Beatty did not answer.

Cameron declined to discuss details, but when asked how she felt about the delay, through her lawyer she gave a one-word answer, “Disgusted.”

An ‘outlier’ system

Some lawmakers have called for a more streamlined system of accountability for the state’s judges.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, is among those leading the charge for reform. He contends the oversight of lower court judges like magistrates should fall more in line with South Carolina’s circuit judges, who handle all felony and major civil cases.

Those judges are screened in public hearings before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. As it stands, the Disciplinary Counsel is the only one in charge of policing magistrates and municipal judges, who also handle minor criminal offenses.

That’s why it’s critical that when the disciplinary agency receives complaints about those judges, the agency takes the matters seriously and acts quickly, Davis said.

“The lack of responsiveness from (Disciplinary Counsel) or the tolerance for these things is indicative that still the magistrate system is looked at as being an outlier,” Davis said. “That's something that has to change."

While Angel Underwood’s complaints have sat pending, to keep her seat on the bench she has needed only the support of Chester’s lone senator, state Sen. Mike Fanning. The Great Falls Democrat has been a close ally to Angel Underwood and her husband for years, endorsing them for public office and regularly posting pictures together with the pair.

During the last round of reappointments in 2019, Fanning installed four new magistrates. The only one he kept was Angel Underwood. In an interview, Fanning summed up her performance as magistrate in one word: Outstanding.

Davis’ proposed Magistrate Reform Act would do away with the practice of sole appointments and add other layers of scrutiny to their appointments.

A separate proposal by Rep. Tommy Stringer, a Greer Republican, called for a legislative panel to investigate the Disciplinary Counsel’s office. But his request, filed in December 2019, has stalled in the state House of Representatives.

The key question for Stringer: Why does South Carolina discipline judges so rarely? Two years later, he hasn’t gotten an answer.

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