Abuse of Power: Alex Underwood trial opens

COLUMBIA – “Abuse of power” is what the government offered as a summation of the charges against former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two deputies at the start of a federal trial on Monday. It’s the same term Underwood attorney Stanley Myers used about the case against his client.

Alex Underwood

The original charges for the three stem from a Nov. 2018 arrest of Kevin Simpson and his mother Ernestine. Charges against Simpson and his mother were ultimately dropped by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Indictments for Underwood and former deputies Robert Sprouse and Johnny Neal in connection with the Simpson arrest included creating a false incident report, violating Simpson’s civil rights, causing him bodily injury by slamming him to the ground, evidence tampering and lying to federal investigators. The Simpson family received an undisclosed sum in a settlement of a civil suit they filed in recent weeks.

After the indictments on those charges were handed down, additional corruption charges were also brought. Previous federal indictments allege that the three men used their positions as law enforcement officers to intimidate others, took “family members on trips (while) charging the cost to the sheriff’s office,” directed “payments for contracted security detail services through a particular sheriff’s office bank account to avoid tax payment,” used “sheriff’s office employees to conduct manual labor that personally benefitted Underwood while the employees were actively working for the sheriff’s office” and “establishing a climate of fear within the sheriff’s office to direct and secure obedience among subordinates.” The indictment notes that upon conviction, the three men may face a financial judgment “equal to the total value of the property subject to forfeiture in the approximate value that each gained from the offenses of conviction.” A superseding indictment from last September added additional corruption and wire fraud charges for Underwood and Neal stating the two “fraudulently obtained payment for work at ECHO checkpoints that they did not perform based on hours billed to Hazel Pittman for other sheriff’s office employees…(they) skimmed from the payments made to the sheriff’s office account based on work performed by subordinate employees…on other occasions (they) split the money received in the sheriff’s office bank account for the work of certain sheriff’s office employees, while the affected employees received nothing.”

The government touched on all those charges in opening statements saying the three abused their power and “violated the trust of the citizens of Chester County.” Additionally, the state alleged officers were often pulled from important police work to do manual labor on Underwood’s property and that deputies were used to track, follow or spy on Underwood’s adversaries.

Underwood attorney Stanley Myers said the abuse of power was actually by the government in going after his client. He said the grand jury system that produced the indictments is an unfair system where the defendant does not get a chance to tell their side of the story.

“They want them to think, “Hey, this must be what happened,’” Myers said.

The government prosecutors objected and when Myers, for a second time, went in the direction of alleging that the government abused its power in going after Underwood. Judge Michelle Childs warned him to not speculate on the government’s motives but to instead address the facts of the case. He said the Facebook Live video of Simpson being arrested by Underwood was “an epilogue not a prologue” and that there had been interactions between he and Neal and Simpson prior to the video streaming that would offer context. He said he would show in the course of the trial that Underwood acted properly and there were reasonable explanations for the steps taken after the fact.

He said Underwood and Sprouse did travel with their wives to out-of-state functions, but did not knowingly have the tabs for their wives picked up by taxpayers. Underwood thought his assistant had taken care of that and that the two paid back the money for their travel and accommodations when they found out. He said there was context and explanations needed on the other charges, but those would show he is not guilty. He also touted Underwood’s many of years of public service, including the fact that he “took a bullet” in the line of duty while working with the State Law Enforcement Division.

Neal’s attorney noted that his client was fairly far down the command chain and had no involvement in many of the allegations involving Underwood. As for allegations he shoved Simpson down and caused him bodily injury, he claimed Simpson changed his story several times and was not believable. As for financial issues related to deputies being paid for working at DUI checkpoints, Neal’s attorney said it was a relatively small amount of money in terms of discrepancies (with some deputies receiving less than they should have, while Underwood and Neal appeared to be paid more than they’d earned) and was not an attempt by Neal to skim money. At worst it was an accounting error and the attorney said he doesn’t even think it was that. When it came to working on Underwood’s property on county time, he said there is only one picture showing his client on the scene and that he is sitting down in that picture not doing work.

Editor’s note: The News & Reporter watched much of the early portions of Monday’s court action in a spillover room on video. The opening statement from Sprouse’s attorney was delivered away from the microphone and was inaudible.

Comments

  1. Michelle Grant says

    Give me a break. alex obstructed the JUDY ORR MURDER INVESTIGATION

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