Doubts cast on transparency and legality of magistrate selection process

WINNSBORO – It took multiple attempts for some recently appointed Fairfield and Chester county magistrate appointees to pass two basic skills exams required by state law, and one appointee couldn’t pass the tests at all.

Katina Capers-Washington and Vanessa Hollins, both appointed to magistrate posts on May 21, passed on the first attempt, an agency spokeswoman said.

Two other Fairfield magistrates, Jannita Gaston and Danielle Miller, also appointed on May 21, have taken the two exams on multiple dates, according to S.C. Court Administration.

At least one of the Fairfield appointees still has not passed the exams, a source with knowledge of the exams said.

Two Chester County magistrates also took the exams multiple times. The other two passed on the first try.

State law requires magistrate candidates to pass the Wonderlich Personnel Test and the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal II before they can be appointed.

The exams are designed to test rudimentary skills, Bob McCurdy, assistant director of Court Administration, said in a 2018 memo.

“Successful examinees will need at least a sixth grade reading level, knowledge of basic mathematics, how to tell time, days of the week and months of the year, and a basic knowledge of U.S. monetary units and the U.S. Customary System of weights and measures,” the memo said.

A Court Administration representative wouldn’t disclose how the candidates scored, nor would she verify if any candidate failed to pass.

“This information is confidential,” agency spokeswoman Ginny Jones said. “If you would like to request it, you will need to file a motion with the Supreme Court.”

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, of which The Voice is a member, said it’s critical for the public to know whether or not magistrate candidates have passed the required exams.

“It’s a serious problem if we put people on who are not qualified,” Bender said.

Testy Situations

The testing revelations raise new questions about whether all the Fairfield and Chester candidates are truly qualified to serve. They also cast doubt on whether the nomination process was as transparent as previously advertised and whether it complied with state law.

According to S.C. statute 22-2-5, magistrate candidates must pass the two exams prior to being appointed.

“A senatorial delegation must use the results of these eligibility examinations to assist in its selection of nominees,” the statute reads. “No person is eligible to be appointed as a magistrate unless he receives a passing score on the eligibility examination.”

Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls, announced the appointment of the four Fairfield candidates via Facebook on May 21.

“Earlier today, these outstanding four individuals were officially appointed and will begin their 4-year service on Wednesday, May 22, 2019,” Fanning posted.

However, as of May 22, none of the four nominees had even taken the required exams, let alone passed them.

Capers-Washington was first to be tested. She passed on her first try on May 23. Hollins came next, also passing the test on the first try on May 28.

Miller didn’t take the tests until May 30. She took the exams again on June 7.

Gaston wasn’t tested until June 4, and took the exams again on June 10.

Other Requirements

In addition to passing the exams, candidates for appointment must also hold a bachelor’s degree. If magistrates aren’t lawyers, they must observe 10 magistrate court trials before they are allowed to hear cases.

More magistrate troubles

To help appoint magistrates, Fanning created screening committees in Fairfield and Chester counties, tasking them with conducting interviews and making nominations for magistrate appointees.

Three Chester County representatives – Dwayne Robinson (a Chester County deputy sheriff), Calvin Gore (also a Chester County Sheriff’s employee and former magistrate), and Angel Underwood (current Chester County chief magistrate and wife of former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood) – comprised the list of the selection committee for Fairfield magistrate applicants according to documents provided by Fanning’s office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Voice.

Two names, however, were missing from that list – Alex Underwood and Fanning, himself. At least one magistrate candidate said the selection committee that interviewed her included Alex underwood and Fanning along with Angel Underwood and Gore.

Alex Underwood, 55, is one of three Chester County law enforcement officials indicted in an unlawful arrest and excessive use of force case filed on May 7.

Charges were filed after the FBI raided the Chester County Sheriff’s Office in late April.

It was not immediately clear why Alex Underwood’s and Fanning’s names were not included in documents that Fanning’s office provided to The Voice.

Attempts to reach Fanning by phone were unsuccessful. An email seeking comment was not immediately returned.

On April 28, in a Facebook post appearing after the raid but before the indictments, Fanning, who lives in Great Falls and represents all of Fairfield and Chester counties, urged people not to rush to judgment.

Fanning also threw his support behind Underwood.

“Our Chester County Sheriff has gone above and beyond what is required of him as a law enforcement professional,” the post states.

“Let us not allow this to lead us to forget his many accomplishments, achievements, and his genuine love and decades of service to Chester County,” Fanning continued. “This is the time to stand behind the man who would lay down his life for us all.”

If convicted on all counts, Underwood faces more than 50 years in prison. Underwood has pleaded not guilty, according to court records.

Underwood in the room

Weeks before his arrest, Underwood participated in at least some magistrate interviews, according to Mattie Stewart Smith, one of several candidates the screening committee interviewed.

Mattie Smith

Speaking with The Voice on Monday, Smith went into greater detail about Alex Underwood’s involvement, including the kinds of questions she says he asked.

Smith said one of Underwood’s questions centered on her availability to sign warrants, regardless of the time.

“He was explaining that law enforcement individuals have to come and get warrants signed,” she said. “He said ‘would you be willing to have them come to your house to get them signed?’”

“I said, ‘yes, I don’t have a problem with that,’” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘oh that’s good because it is a problem sometimes.’”

Smith also recalls Underwood asking her if she had any issues working a four-day workweek. She said she didn’t.

“I did not have a problem with that. I explained to them that basically I was retired, that my time is my time,” Smith said.

Smith said she’s certain Underwood was present for the interviews, despite a recent media report that cited an anonymous source disputing Smith’s account.

She said he remained for the entire interview, which was conducted in executive session. Smith remembers Underwood stating he helped provide security a few years ago during her 30th wedding anniversary vows renewal.

“He said ‘Your food was good and the ceremony was really nice,’” Smith said.

Smith added that this was her second attempt seeking a Fairfield magistrate post, and that it’s unlikely she’ll try again, noting the process has become too political.

“Looking back, it soured me to the whole process. I’ve worked for government for 36 years and I’ve always done my job, I’ve never played politics,” she said. “I just feel that there are a lot agendas here that I’m not aware of. I’m not interested in anything here because I don’t like the maneuvering.”

Record of legal challenges

Although Alex Underwood was indicted after magistrate interviews occurred, the pending case is the latest in a long line of legal challenges the sheriff’s department has faced under Underwood’s leadership, according to judicial records.

Since 2014, Underwood has been listed as a defendant or codefendant in eight federal lawsuits. Additional lawsuits have been filed and adjudicated in state court, according to court records.

Some cases were filed by private citizens, which like the pending criminal case against Underwood, allege unnecessary use of force or failure to follow protocol.


Barbara Ball contributed to this article.