When a tenth of the members of the S.C. Legislature were indicted on corruption charges in the federal Operation Lost Trust sting, the question was how, not whether, lawmakers would overhaul the state's anemic ethics law and enact other reforms to reduce the chance that their colleagues would succumb to temptation.
Yet nearly a third of South Carolina's sheriffs have now been accused of committing crimes, and the response from the Legislature is … crickets. This despite the fact that there are some obvious and easy changes lawmakers could make to reduce the temptation for sheriffs to break the law.
Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland's arrest on Nov. 9 on charges of criminal domestic violence brought to 14 the number of S.C. sheriffs in the past decade accused of breaking the law while in office. Nine have been convicted — most recently Greenville's Will Lewis, less than three weeks ago — one died before he could be indicted, one was accepted into a pretrial intervention program, and three are awaiting trial.
Unlike most of those sheriffs, Strickland wasn't charged with abusing his position for personal or financial gain. But as reporters Tony Bartelme and Joseph Cranney have documented, he clearly has taken advantage of his position: This summer, he charged the county for an extra room for his kids when he took them to a sheriffs' conference in Myrtle Beach.
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And his public responses to criticism of that incident are consistent with the type of crime he's now accused of committing: He tried to bully a county official who had the audacity to ask for documentation for the $1,500 bill from the trip. And he threatened to fire any employees who didn't support his re-election campaign.
We have no way of knowing whether Strickland was a bully who became sheriff or a sheriff who became a bully, but we know that S.C. law teaches sheriffs to believe they're above the law. It gives them the power to arrest people and fire employees at will, no direct supervisor, little oversight and access to multiple funding sources that aren't well-scrutinized.
Obviously, sheriffs must have the power to arrest people. And there's nothing inherently wrong with letting them fire employees at will. What's wrong — what's producing South Carolina's epidemic of criminal sheriffs — is allowing them to have that sort of power without significant oversight.
This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.