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UPDATED: Underwood netted raise of $20k-plus…without county council approval

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By Travis Jenkins

It was never approved by Chester County Council, but in 2016, then-Sheriff Alex Underwood received a sizable raise.

The News & Reporter filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request with Chester County recently to obtain the salaries of a number of employees, including Underwood (who has since been suspended from office by order of S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster after being charged with eight felony indictments). Currently, the Chester County Sheriff earns an annual salary of $81,655, which includes a $1,575 state supplement). As of 2016 (the last time a News & Reporter story referenced the sheriff’s pay) the salary stood at $57,000. Former Sheriff Richard Smith (who Underwood unseated in 2012) was also paid $57,000, almost $25,000 less than the current salary. Per a check of council minutes, previous stories and an interview with a member of the council, Chester County Council did not pass a standalone measure to increase that salary.

The Home Rule Act contains language that allows the county to increase an official’s salary during his current term but prohibits it from reducing until a new term. So a salary can be increased, but there is a legal process for how that is accomplished. Section 8-15-10 of South Carolina code deals specifically with “determination of compensation of officers and employees.”

“Except as otherwise provided…the compensation of all officers and employees of the State or any political subdivision, department or agency thereof shall be as from time to time provided by the General Assembly or the particular political subdivision, department or agency concerned, as the case may be.”

Essentially, that means the salary increase or decrease of an elected official in Chester County can only be legally carried out by Chester County Council. The News & Reporter made note of the raise in a story about Underwood’s indictment last week. The topic was discussed at a Chester County Council budget workshop Thursday. County Treasurer Tommy Darby said that two years ago, “upper management got a pay bump.” He indicated the issue was not being discussed for the first time, noting “we’ve been over this before.”

The $57,000 salary would have qualified as very low compared to a couple of surrounding counties. Fairfield County (which is actually smaller than Chester in terms of population) pays its sheriff $82,773. Lancaster County (which is about three times larger than Chester in terms of population) pays its sheriff just over $102,000.

“No doubt, a sheriff should be paid more than that but it didn’t come before council,” said Councilman Alex Oliphant.

Darby said that “requests were submitted and changes were made.” “Requests” and “changes” were the choice of words because Underwood’s salary was not the only one to be increased. Now former Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse (who was one of two deputies indicted alongside Underwood) also received a raise at some point (the News & Reporter is filing a FOIA request to obtain that upgraded salary) but the process of instituting a raise for a deputy would be considerably different than that of an elected official. It is unclear if any other elected officials received a raise alongside Underwood in 2017. Oliphant asked how the raises were given without the consent of the council.

“I did sign off on some of those,” said Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart.

Once the raises were signed off on, they went through human resources, who would not necessarily have a reason to check on whether or not proper protocol was followed, Darby said.

Councilman Joe Branham wondered if the council needed to bring the matter back before the council. Not to change what was done, but simply to institute the raise correctly.

“That would protect everyone,” he said.

County Attorney Joanie Winters referenced Section 8 of state code and said the council “needs triggers” on items such as this that would have to be hit (i.e. a vote of county council) before anything could be carried out.

The discussion ended there. There was no mention of who made the requests to have the salary of Underwood or others increased. The News & Reporter sent questions regarding the raise to Stuart and Darby but had not received responses as of press time on Tuesday.

Underwood, who was suspended from office last week by Governor McMaster after being indicted on eight counts by a federal grand jury, had sources of income outside his salary. In 2016, to great fanfare, it was announced that the Hazel Pittman Center (the designated, non-profit state substance abuse authority  for Chester County) had obtained a five-year, $500,000 grant to support the ECHO (Empowering Communities for Healthy Outcomes) DUI task force, a multi-agency and jurisdictional group unified to combat drunk driving. Officers received training in operating radar and breathalyzers so impaired driving checks could be done on site and more camera systems were put into vehicles to make stronger cases in court. The News & Reporter was provided with 14 invoices sent from the “Office of the Sheriff, Chester County, South Carolina” to the Hazel Pittman Center for “ECHO DUI Task Force, ECHO Activities- Checkpoints.” Each invoice lists sheriff’s office employees that worked a checkpoint (presumably on off time), the number of hours each worked, the date the checkpoint was held and the total amount each was to be paid. Instructions at the bottom of each invoice said checks should be made payable to the “Chester County Sheriff’s Office” (as opposed to Chester County). On the first nine invoices provided (it is unclear if the invoices shared with the newspaper represented a complete list of all checkpoints), Underwood’s name was listed alongside other officers to have worked checkpoints who were entitled to payment. The first invoice (for a checkpoint on March 10, 2016) listed 13 names (including Underwood’s), with each being listed as working six hours at a rate for $30 per hour for a total payment of $180 each. The next invoice provided was for a checkpoint on April 16, 2016. Underwood (and several deputies) were all listed as working five hours and earning $150 apiece. Underwood worked three others over the next five weeks, earning a total of $570, netting him an extra $900 from March 10 to May 25. The remaining invoices stretch into early 2017.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, checked with the S.C. Sheriff’s Association on the topic of sheriffs earning money outside their normal salary for running checkpoints or doing security work. He was told there is no legal problem with them doing so. The News & Reporter spoke to other law enforcement officials who echoed that sentiment. However, most said they were unfamiliar with other sheriffs undertaking such work, though it is commonplace for deputies. One noted that with the position being a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job, they weren’t sure what would qualify as “off time” for a sheriff. They noted that if a sheriff goes out to dinner, out of uniform on his “free time,” has too much to drink and is pulled over for a DUI driving home, the coroner has to be called to the scene to make the arrest. In South Carolina, a coroner is the only county official that can arrest a sheriff…but that demonstrates that a sheriff is a sheriff round-the-clock.