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Lawyer vacation delays sentencing for Underwood, former deputies

The sentencing of former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and former deputies Robert Sprouse and Johnny Neal that has been delayed for more than a year has now been delayed for a few more weeks.

The three men, found guilty on an assortment of federal charges last April, were to have been sentenced last Friday. On Wednesday, however, the proceedings were postponed and rescheduled for July 11. On June 9, Underwood attorney Stanley Myers filed a notice for request for protection from court appearances with Michelle Childs (the federal judge that presided over the case of the three men and will handle sentencing).

“You will please take notice that the undersigned counsel, Stanley L. Myers, for Defendant George Alexander Underwood, hereby requests protection from court appearances beginning June 21, 2022 — June 25, 2022 (for) vacation with family to Outer Banks, North Carolina.”

Neal and Sprouse were originally going to be sentenced two weeks ago, but that was pushed back to last week and the sentencing of Underwood was added. There were no requests for protection from appearances for the new date of July 11 by Myers in the document.

The original charges for the three involved a Nov. 2018 arrest of Kevin Simpson and eventually his mother Ernestine. Simpson was in the front yard of his Fort Lawn area home live streaming a wreck scene that had turned into a manhunt had two interactions with Underwood and was arrested by the sheriff after obeying a command to move to his porch He was arrested, spent three nights in jail (those with similar or lesser charges than his disorderly conduct and resisting arrest counts bonded out in a matter of hours during his stay at the detention center) and his mother was also eventually placed under arrest. Charges against Simpson and his mother were ultimately dropped by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and the two received an undisclosed payout resulting from a civil lawsuit. Indictments for Underwood, Sprouse and 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

After the indictments on those charges were handed down, additional corruption charges were also brought on unrelated matters. Previous federal indictments alleged 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.” A superseding indictment from September of 2020 tacked on more corruption and wire fraud charges for Underwood and Neal, which claimed the two “fraudulently obtained payment for work at ECHO (traffic) 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.”

At the conclusion of the trial last April, Sprouse was found guilty on a conspiracy charge in relation to wire fraud; federal program theft or falsification of records, a separate count of falsification of records, making false statements to federal investigators and federal program theft. He received not guilty verdicts on a pair of counts. He faces a possible sentence of 30-37 months in prison.

Neal received guilty verdicts on charges of conspiracy in relation to wire fraud; federal program theft or falsification of records, violating the civil rights of Kevin Simpson, falsification of records, federal program theft and eight other conspiracy counts. He faces 46-57 months in prison, the same range as Underwood. The former sheriff (elected in 2012 and reelected in 2016 before being suspended from office after his 2019 indictments) was found guilty on seven different charges, including a conspiracy charge in relation to wire fraud and federal program theft or falsification of records. He was also found guilty of civil rights violations related to the arrest of Kevin Simpson, federal program theft and four additional conspiracy charges.

The City of Chester’s Live After 5 event this Friday will celebrate the 4th of July in downtown Chester. Music will be provided by Packrats Smokehouse Blues Band. There will be vendors and food trucks, including Lil Bill’s and Chucktown Mobile Seafood. Fireworks will be set off at 9 p.m. in the Backlot. Pictured is the fireworks show from 2021. Many watched the show from the old First Citizens Bank parking lot.

Live After 5 brings the July 4 boom!

The 'numbers person' is also a 'people person': District CFO Mellanie Jinnette retires

She’s the CFO of the CCSD, and if all that is too confusing, just call the school district’s Chief Financial Officer Mellanie Jinnette “the numbers person.” In an interview with The N&R just days before her retirement from school service after 30 years, you learn that she’s a “people person” as well.

Jinnette came to the Chester County School District after 24 years as the Chief Financial Officer of the State Department of Education; this was the first school-district level job she has worked at.

“When I worked at the Department of Ed., I thought I would be a “state employee” my entire career. I never really thought that I would come to work at a school district, but I got the opportunity to come to Chester. I never regret any of it. I am thrilled that I picked Chester, and the week after it was announced the week after I picked Chester, I had four district superintendents call me and say ‘we didn’t you were looking for a job, you could have come to work for us’. I told them, no, I’m going to work in Chester. It was right up the road from my home (Jinnette and her husband live in nearby Blythewood) and I enjoy the commute. It’s not bad, and books on tape are my friend,” Jinnette said.

“I love it here in Chester — I’ve made some lifelong friends among teachers and principals in the district, district office staff and community members,” she said. “I’m going to miss that, but after 30 years it was time,” she said.

She plans to provide some care for her family members, which is one of the reasons why she is retiring.

Jinnette said she started thinking about retirement about six or eight months ago.

“I knew I was approaching my 30th year anniversary in February of 2022, and I even told (Superintendent) Dr. Sutton when he came onboard, ‘I’m promising you two years, and I will have 30 years in February.’ And it’s a nice even number. I could have retired at 28 years, but that would have been no years working with Dr. Sutton, and I felt like I wanted to give him some time as Superintendent and me as CFO. It’s been a wonderful relationship,” she said.

Jinnette was the first person to be named Chief Financial Officer for the district. Prior to the that her job carried a title of Executive Director of Finance, but the school board at the time decided they wanted a more professional position, someone who could oversee the entire financial responsibilities and operations of the school district.

Jinnette inherited a school district with a sound financial footing and has only built on that.

“I’ve been very pleased, we have added to our general fund fund balance, over the last six years I’ve been here. We have received a low risk assessment from the DoE since I been here. That’s very encouraging, because people don’t look forward to that risk assessment. We have had continuity and consistency and good financial reporting and we’ve had positive audits. We have adequate cash to pay our bills and we are in very good financial position. I think we are in good standing,” Jinnette said.

This is despite a persistent rumor on social media that the school district has “$40 million in a reserve” (which Jinnette addressed at the June school board meeting).

“In fact, I had lunch with the Chester County Treasurer and Auditor, and we said they don’t know where this number came from, the state doesn’t know where it is. There is no $40 million in any audit that we have,” she reiterated.

Jinnette said one of her accomplishments was to make the financial information understandable for the board members and the general public. Her experience at the State Department of Ed., where she had to make school financial information understandable to principals and school districts (and legislators) helped her to accomplish this.

“You had to make it plain so that all the school districts understood what was being budgeted, what the financial and programmatic requirements were, so the easier you made it for the districts, the better off they were. That just translated to coming here…I brought my familiarity with how things worked at a state level here to Chester,” she said.

Jinnette faced several challengers during her tenure as CFO that other district financial administrators had not even dreamed of, specifically having to deal with federal funds such as the ESSER funds and funds related to Covid issues. The recordkeeping required at the federal level was something beyond what even the state Department of Ed. had ever required. For help, Jinnette looked outside of the district.

“I’ve learned over my years that you don’t do anything in a silo; we have a group of other financial folks across the state that we rely on each other heavily. When there were program requirements from the Department of Ed. or the federal government, we would get together and talk over how we were doing things,” she said.

Looking back on her years as the school district CFO, Jinnette feels the relationships she has built with principals and teachers to be one of her accomplishments, as well as beginning the procedures to turn processes in the finance department paperless, reducing the many forms and other pieces of paper the department uses. “We started this process under my tenure, but I wish I could be here to see it come to fruition,” she said.

Jinnette was also CFO during the two failed bond referendums, and while she doesn’t fault people in the school district for voting they way they did, she said she was disappointed in the outcome and the implications for students — not those current high school students or even the ones in school next year, but for those students playing on the Chester Park Complex playground that she can see from her office window.

“I was disappointed. I understand that it was a burden to bear for taxpayers, but I live in a school district that my taxes skyrocket every time they pass a referendum (Jinnette lives in Blythewood). To me, the referendum was all about ‘what are we doing for the children?’

“I hate that the bond referendum didn’t pass, I understand peoples’ reasons for voting no, it was their prerogative as voter in Chester County. I just hate that we were not able to do what we need to do for the children,” she said.

She gestured to the window at the Chester Park Complex playground visible in the distance.

“I’ve got a great viewpoint out the window of this office, and I can see when the children at the Complex are playing on the playground, and I think ‘they are the ones that would benefit from a new Chester High School.’

“And we have to do something: we have buildings that are crumbling around us. We have got to do something. The district will be continuing with the Career Center plans, using our eight% bond capacity…it might take longer, but that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.

Jinnette came under criticism on social media during the lead up to the bond referendum, but she said the criticisms did not affect her.

“I pray to a God that will take care of me, and He knows, and my superintendent knows, and our staff and the school board knows, that we do a good job in this office. People are going to make up stuff, and they’re going to put whatever they want to on social media. And it’s not just Chester; I see what’s going on in Lancaster, Fort Mill, Richland District 2. People put things on social media, and other people take it and run with it. If that is the way they spend their day, so be it. I know I do a good job, and I have never stolen a dollar from this district or the state of South Carolina, and I never will. I have too much integrity, and I can lay my head on a pillow at night and know I have done the very best job I can do for this district,” she said.

Dr. Sutton said of Jinnette, “It has been a joy and pleasure to work with someone so passionate, calm, and professional all at the same time. While I’ve only had the opportunity to work with Ms. Jinnette for two years, it was always clear of her dedication to the Chester County School District. Her financial knowledge and advisement resulted in CCSD being financially-sound for the past several years. She was a colleague and even more, I consider her a friend. She is very well deserving of this retirement, and she will be greatly missed.”

After she settles down in retirement, Jinnette hopes to take up one of her other avocations, creating and selling homemade jewelry. She has exhibited at the Arts Council of Chester County at the Jingle Bell Bazaar. She also plans to do some consulting work for some school districts.

It was just the right time to retire, Jinnette says.

“Everybody says you know when it feels right to retire, and it feels right. As hard as it is to leave everybody, it feels like the right time.”

Is she leaving anything undone? No, but there’s a project that, while it may take a while, Jinnette will still be here for. She’s thinking about those kids playing on the Chester Park Complex playground when she says, “When we break ground on the new Career Center, I will be here for it. I want to see it for the students of Chester County.”

Attorneys for Underwood, Sprouse and Neal ask for leniency

The attorneys for former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and former deputies Robert Sprouse and Johnny Neal have all filed memorandums with the court seeking more lenient sentencing (which was delayed and rescheduled for July 11, see related story).

A filing by Underwood attorney Stanley Myers discusses his client’s professional, family and educational background before citing case law, which noted, “Destruction of professional capacity and ordinary livelihood is a pretty serious punishment already inflicted and carried out…and one that’s likely to be permanent.”

Myers argued that a court could “depart downward” because sentencing guidelines fail “to account for such heavy consequences as a lost business.” The Fourth Circuit, he wrote, “has expressly approved of mitigated sentences when collateral consequences mean punishment already inflicted.”

“Collateral consequences add significantly to Mr. Underwood’s punishment, while it is an unfortunate example (that) deters others from similar conduct. These offenses cost Mr. Underwood his career in law enforcement. He worked in law enforcement for over 30 years. As a result of his conviction, Mr. Underwood’s law enforcement credentials have been taken and he will never work in law enforcement again,” Myers wrote.

He stated that the destruction of Underwood’s career, along with his reputation in the public and employability all “significantly satisfy the need for just punishment and deterrence.”

Further, Myers said Underwood has “never been in trouble” The Sentencing Commission has noted that first offenders are less culpable than other offenders and that “sentencing reductions for first offenders are supported by the recidivism data and would recognize their lower re-offending rates.”

The Myers filing contained a section titled “The need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants guilty of similar conduct” which cited the sentences of other recently convicted public officials. Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson was disbarred, sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison and ordered to pay $19,000 in restitution after being convicted of wire fraud. Former Colleton County Sheriff Robert Strickland plead guilty to one count of third degree assault and battery, one count of misconduct in office and one count of breach of trust with fraudulent intent and received five years probation. Former Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis was sentenced to a year in prison after being found guilty of one count of misconduct in office.” Underwood was found guilty on seven counts related to violation of civil rights, federal program theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Myers wrote that Underwood would be more able to pay restitution if he were free to work and closed by saying that his client asked the court to consider his positive contributions to his community over the years, the “abnormal criminal conduct” and the “steps he has taken to return his life to a productive and law-abiding path in rendering an appropriate sentence in the matter.” Sentencing guidelines, set in January, for Underwood were 46-57 months in prison.

Sprouse attorney Michael Laubshire made many of the same points as Myers in his filing. The guidelines for sentencing for his client fall between 30 and 37 months but he wrote that the court does not have to be constrained by those numbers.

“Although the Guidelines remain ‘the starting point and the initial benchmark’ for sentencing, a sentencing court my no longer rely exclusively on the Guidelines range, rather, the court must make an individualized assessment based on the facts presented other and the statutory factors…the Guidelines thus continue to guide district courts in exercising their discretion by serving as ‘the framework for sentencing’…but they do not constrain that discretion,” Laubshire wrote.

He argued that Sprouse had no criminal record prior to his indictment and cited many of the same statistics about recidivism with first-time offenders as Myers. Laubshire said Sprouse does not have issues with drugs or alcohol and does not have “any criminalistic or sociopathic attitude.” There has been no violation of bond and all pretrial detention requirements have been met, he wrote. He also brought up the “ruined reputation and stigma” that comes with his conviction.

“Defendant Robert Sprouse is now a convicted felon. Defendant devoted his life to public service…this conviction will stay on (his) permanent criminal record making even the smallest thing become dreadful experiences. For example, Defendant must disclose his felony convictions when applying for a loan, an apartment and on every job application. Defendant must live with this stigma for the rest of his life,” Laubshire wrote.

The attorney added that Sprouse did not personally profit from work done on Underwood’s property by on-duty deputies and that he served at Underwood’s pleasure.

“Defendant’s role in the conspiracy warrants a lesser sentence to distinguish the Defendant from his superior.”

Laubshire said a number of letters speaking to Sprouse’s character have been submitted to the court for consideration.

A filing on behalf of Neal also mentioned that his “role was less than Underwood’s” and that he was subordinate to the sheriff. A case was made that as a “first offender” he was less likely to commit further crimes, that not being incarcerated would better enable him to pay restitution, that he poses no danger to the public, that he possesses a strong work history, that he supports his family, that society will benefit more from him supporting his family that from him being in jail, that the good he has done in his life must be weighed, that the sentence is too harsh and that Neal “is (an) otherwise law-abiding citizen who just did dumb things.”

Like Underwood, Neal faces 46-57 months in jail.

A hot-button issue

Money for fire districts has been a frequent topic of discussion recently for Chester County Council.

At last week’s meeting of the Council, two people spoke in the public forum about their preference for impact fees as opposed to developer’s plans. The first was T Melton, Richburg’s fire chief. Though one recently approved development did effectively set an impact fee on the construction of all future units, the county has not actually adopted mandatory fees. Doing so is not as simple as setting a per-unit cost, with money only allowed to be spent on particular expenses related to the development and in the areas impacted. Development plans feature fees that can be spent more broadly, but Melton said that is a bad deal for fire and rescue operations like his.

“A development plan…will effectively remove more funds away from emergency services,” he said. “Impact fees are designed to be used in an area where they’re collected, development fees can be used anywhere. You can take more services away from where it’s needed.”

Melton said his department runs more than 40% of the calls in the county and has a number of large industries in the district to contend with, yet receives no fee-in-lieu-of-tax money from any (with those funds ticketed to pay for the Gateway Conference Center). There is a plan to address firefighter needs in the county that proposes the use of “floaters.” All the departments in the county need help, he said, but that plan is not realistic or workable for Richburg in the long-term, given the influx of developments and industry.

John Agee, the former chief of Richburg and a county councilman-elect, also spoke, telling the council it needed to be speaking to and dealing with the Richburg Fire Board on the issue.

“That’s who you should be talking to about Richburg. Y’all are sitting here talking about something that you should be talking to that board about,” Agee said.

In terms of development fees, Agee said the matter represented nothing but “a way to take the money out of district one and spend it somewhere else.”

“District one has been raped of funds to go into fire protection and other infrastructure that needs to go out there,” Agee said.

He added that residents of District One are “sick and tired” of seeing money that should stay within their district allocated elsewhere.

Councilman Pete Wilson said the Council has taken the approach that impact fees would be, “a great tool” but also said implementation is not easy.

“They’re unfortunately difficult to put into place and we’ve tried and not succeeded for a variety of reasons. This is a way to put something into place until those are in place or, if this is working well, it can work too,” Wilson said.

He allowed that development fees can be spent at the discretion of Chester County Council but said how the money is allocated could certainly be discussed.

The Council unanimously approved a plan to institute development fees, though a motion from Councilman Brad Jordan (the current District One representative) to allocate a portion of development fees (to be determined later) also passed unanimously.

At a special called meeting on Monday, the Council voted unanimously to increase the percentage of money from fee-in-lieu-of-tax agreements allocated from industries to fire protection districts in which they sit from four% to five%. For 2021, that will mean an additional $12,923 for Richburg, $17,392 for the Chester Fire District and $4,507 for the Lewis Fire District according Tommy Darby. Those numbers are “post-Gateway” he said, meaning industries that have come online in the county since an arrangement was made a decade ago to fund the Gateway Conference Center with fee-in-lieu-of-tax money.

Darby said there had also been a discussion about making the fire districts “whole” for the lost revenue for fees allocated to paying for Gateway. Based on five%, for the fiscal year 2021, that would have meant an additional $94,865 for Richburg, $17,024 for Lando and $9,912 for Chester. Darby said the plan is to budget that for the coming fiscal year. So, Richburg would stand to gain a total of more than $107,000.

The plan was passed unanimously.

Wilson posted an update about the plans on social media Monday night, saying the Council “took meaningful action today to begin to offer relief to at least a few departments who need it most” by increasing the share of industrial money going to fire departments and districts and by “making whole” lost funds from existing industries ticketed for paying for the Gateway.

“This method of funding fire departments is not perfect but to me it is at least a methodical way of returning a portion of the FILOT (fee-in-lieu-of-taxes) from industry back to the departments that will be responsible for providing them fire protection,” Wilson wrote.

Additionally, Wilson said the new County budget will also fund four part-time positions in the fire coordinator’s office. He said the positions will require EMT qualifications which he thinks will help with response times in the more rural areas of the county.

“They will be spending their time ‘out’ in the county. I’m excited about the potential for improved services and hope this approach is something that we can build upon. Everyone that I spoke with today about these new positions share my optimism,” he wrote.