Council requested investigation of Stuart goes beyond spending

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By Travis Jenkins

Chester County Council is not only requesting that S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office investigate unauthorized expenditures made by Supervisor Shane Stuart, they are asking that his role in an aborted attempt at changing the county’s form of government be looked into.

In May, Chester County Council voted unanimously to enlist the help of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the State Ethics Commission to investigate a large raise Stuart approved for now-suspended Sheriff Alex Underwood. In November of 2016, just days after he was reelected to a second term in office, Underwood’s salary was elevated from $57,000 to $77,000 annually despite no standalone measure for such a pay hike being approved. The raise was also not part of the county budget as November is near the midpoint of the fiscal year.

The raises were requested in letters. The News & Reporter obtained copies of the letters through a Freedom of Information Act request. The letter asking for Underwood’s salary to be elevated actually came from former Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse (who was one of two deputies indicted on eight federal counts along with Underwood two months ago). The letter, dated November 10, 2016, was addressed to Cindy Goettsch, the since-retired county director of human resources.

“Dear Cindy…The current salary for the elected official position of sheriff should be increased effective immediately from the current $57,467.23 to $77,000. Thank you for you assistance in this matter,” Sprouse wrote.

Underwood, the same day, wrote a letter to Goettsch stating that Sprouse’s salary should be increased “effective immediately” from $51,397 to $65,000. He subsequently sent letters stating that three other deputies should be given $6,000-a-year raises. Stuart admitted to signing off on the raises but said he believed his actions were legal, saying that while the council does approve the overall budget for the sheriff’s office, it does not directly control its spending.

The News & Reporter made an inquiry to the State Ethics Commission as to whether or not it had received a letter asking for an investigation into Stuart from the council but was told the commission could “neither confirm nor deny” whether or not it had launched an investigation. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, though, the newspaper did obtain a copy of the letter received by the attorney general’s office from the council.

“Chester County Council voted unanimously to direct me to contact your office and request an investigation into possible violations of the South Carolina Code of Laws. Specifically, information has been made available to council members that the elected County Supervisor, K. Shane Stuart, may have engaged in violations of law as it relates to the expenditure of monies, outside the authorization by the Chester County Council,” wrote Joe Branham, Chester County Council vice-chairman.

The letter then mentions Underwood’s pay increase, which was possibly made “in violation of Chapter 9 of Title 4.” The council had previously discussed the fact that state law only allows the salary of an elected sheriff to be increased by a county council. Branham’s letter then asks for an investigation into back pay given to Underwood’s wife, Angel, after her suspension from the magistrate’s bench in 2016.

“In May of 2015, Chester County Magistrate Angel Underwood was suspended by the S.C. Supreme Court and subsequently entered into an ‘Agreement for Discipline’ by Consent filed September 14, 2016. During Magistrate Underwood’s suspension, the S.C. Supreme Court ordered ‘Chester County is under no obligation to pay respondent her salary during the suspension.’  Upon conclusion of Magistrate Underwood’s suspension for misconduct, Supervisor Stuart authorized the payment of $39,000 to Magistrate Underwood to serve as back pay during her suspension. The payment was executed outside the knowledge and approval of the Chester County Council, possibly in violation of Chapter 9 of Title 4.”

A third request for investigation mentions “exorbitant credit card expenditures charged by Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood…the expenditure of county funds for a social media coordinator who (Stuart) owns a home with and…the carryover of annual leave for some county employees outside the scope of the county’s employee handbook.” All of those are instances of Stuart acting outside his authority as supervisor, Branham’s letter stated.

The letter then references an attorney general opinion from July 5, 2016.

“Chester County Council has serious concerns the above enumerated expenditures may have artificially inflated Chester County’s budget, therefore having a negative impact on the county’s millage.”

The opinion referenced came from Wilson’s office in response to a request for opinion from State Rep. John King (D, York). King noted that an unnamed supervisor was authorized to spend $36,000 on a vehicle as part of his county’s annual budget. However, using money saved from various other areas of the budget, that supervisor spent more than $60,000 on the vehicle purchase. King asked if the supervisor’s actions were lawful, what potential criminal charges that supervisor could face and if there were any civil remedies available.

“In our opinion, a court of competent jurisdiction would find that the actions of a public official who spends public money in excess of the appropriated amount exceeds his or her legal authority, and therefore acts unlawfully,” the opinion read.

Specifically answering as to whether the actions were lawful, Wilson’s office said a properly passed budget has the force of law behind it, because it “a legislative action passed by ordinance.” A county supervisor has the power and duty to “execute the policies and legislative actions of the council” and “when the council properly enunciates policies, the supervisor’s only function is to carry out such policies.”

“Therefore, if a county supervisor spends public money in a manner that is contrary to an ordinance of the county, then he or she has acted unlawfully by exceeding his or her legal authority…for these reasons, it is the opinion of this office that expending public money in excess of the budgeted amount is an unlawful act. “

Wilson’s office “respectfully decline(d)” to answer what potential criminal charges unauthorized spending might constitute, but did note that “in the past, prosecutors have charged public officials with misconduct in office for such action.” As for civil remedies, the opinion said that public officials who misspend public funds may be personally liable under the “due care” standard set out by the S.C. Supreme Court in Chandler v. Britton.

Branham’s letter also mention two items that do not deal with spending in any way. In 2016, the council approved the first two readings of a measure that would have put on the General Election ballot that year the option of changing Chester from a supervisor form of government to an administrator form, but the matter was pulled before third reading and a public hearing because of what Stuart called “a miscalculation.” By law, notices of a public hearing must be published 15 days prior to the public hearing being held and that did not happen. The notice of that public hearing appeared in the Wednesday, July 13 2016 edition of The News & Reporter, which means there was only 12 days in-between the notice and the public hearing, scheduled for July 25. Stuart said an effort was made to place the notice in a timely manner. Email records indicate the notice of public hearing was received by The News & Reporter on Monday, July 11 at 11:09 a.m. The notice being published on that Monday would have satisfied the notice requirement but the newspaper does not publish a Monday edition and could not have gotten something received on Monday in a Monday paper even if it did. Stuart said the council’s failure to hire a clerk (they were without one at that time) in a timely manner played a role in the matter, as a clerk would likely have caught the problem. With time being of the essence to put together a referendum for the election, which at that point was less than four months away, the entire proposal was set aside.

“The council properly followed all steps required by law for this matter to be placed on the ballot…however, Supervisor Stuart took some type of action, unbeknownst to council members, that stopped this question from being placed on the general election ballot. If Stuart unilaterally effected the removal of this ballot measure, outside the consent of the Chester County Council, it may be a violation of S.C. Code 4-9-420 (which deals with the powers of an elected supervisor),” Branham’s letter said.

The letter also touches on an email Stuart sent to county employees shortly after the May 20 vote of the council to investigate Stuart.

“Just as concerning is that during the May 20th council meeting, Councilman Alex Oliphant publicly encouraged any employees of Chester County to tell someone if they see something that could be considered wrong. Within days, Supervisor Stuart emailed county employees requiring ‘…to be notified as soon as possible if you are contacted by any other elected official.’ Supervisor Stuart further advised in the email ‘…under state law (4-9-430) I need to know so I can act accordingly,’” the letter stated.

Section 4-9-430 does note “except for the purposes of inquiries and official investigations, neither the council nor its members shall give direct orders to any county officer or employee, either publicly or privately.” The News & Reporter has been shown a copy of that email and another (from 2016) in which Stuart shares a similar sentiment, saying that discussing operations of the county with other elected officials without contacting the supervisor’s office “is viewed as insubordinate behavior under the policy and procedure manual.”

There is no timeline for the investigation from the attorney general’s office.