Former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and former deputies Robert Sprouse and Johnny Neal have all appealed the sentences given to them two weeks ago by Judge Michelle Childs.
Underwood was found guilty on seven charges at the conclusion of a two-week trial in April of 2021, including a conspiracy charge in relation to wire fraud, federal program theft or falsification of records, civil rights violations (related to the arrest of Kevin Simpson) and additional federal program theft and conspiracy charges. Some of those charges were in relation to having on-duty deputies perform work on his personal property and to having skimmed money from off-duty deputies working ECHO DUI checkpoints. Those were funded by a federal grant that was administered through the local Hazel Pittman Center. He received a sentence of 46 months in prison and was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of nearly $30,000. Sentencing for he, Sprouse and Neal was on July 11.
Underwood was the first to file his appeal, doing so early last week. The actual filing contains no details on the merits of an appeal, simply acknowledging that “George Alexander Underwood, in the above-named case hereby appeal(s) to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.”
Sprouse, Underwood’s former chief deputy, filed his appeal last Thursday. After being found guilty on a conspiracy charge related to wire fraud, federal program theft or falsification of records, a separate charge of falsification of records, making false statements to federal investigators and federal program theft, Sprouse was sentenced to 24 months in prison and ordered to pay $24,749.30 in restitution. His sentence and restitution were lower than that of Underwood and Neal because he had no involvement in the ECHO DUI money-skimming scheme and was not directly involved in arresting Simpson. As with Underwood, his filing simply acknowledges that he is appealing his sentence.
Neal, who received a sentence identical to that of Underwood (46 months, $30,000 in restitution), was found guilty on charges of conspiracy in relation to wire fraud, federal program theft or falsification of records, violation of civil rights, an additional count of falsification of records and federal program theft and eight other conspiracy counts. His appeal was filed on Friday.
The only other filing in the case last week was one dealing with where Underwood will be sent to serve his sentence. Per his request, Underwood has been assigned to a prison outside the state. He made that request at his sentencing hearing, citing safety concerns. He will be sentenced to FCI Butner in North Carolina. Online descriptions list it as a medium security facility that houses “white collar” criminals and many found guilty on corruption charges. The full order reads…
“This matter is before the court pursuant to Defendant George Alexander Underwood’s (“Underwood”) request for the court to recommend that the Bureau of Prisons place him at FCI Butner to serve his sentence. In April 2021, a jury found Underwood guilty of conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371, wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343, federal program theft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A), and deprivation of civil rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242. (ECF No. 258.) On July 11, 2022, the court sentenced Underwood to a term of forty-six (46) months of imprisonment, followed by three (3) years of supervised release. (ECF No. 338.) At sentencing, Underwood’s counsel asked the court to recommend Underwood serve his sentence in a facility outside of South Carolina due to concerns about his safety. Counsel has now asked the court to specifically recommend the Bureau of Prisons place him at FCI Butner.
The court grants Underwood’s request and hereby recommends the Bureau of Prisons place Defendant George Underwood at FCI Butner in Butner, North Carolina.”
Underwood is to voluntarily report by September 15. Sprouse and Neal are to voluntarily report by September 1.
Just as a vintner might decant a young wine to introduce it to the public, some representatives of the E. & J. Gallo Winery recently provided some local groups with an update on the construction project taking shape near Fort Lawn.
Gallo representatives made a brief presentation to the Chester County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) composed of first responders and other emergency personnel (such as Chester County Emergency Management) and industry representatives from some Chester County plants.
Gallo Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Manager Chris Ray made the presentation to the LEPC. Then at the Catawba Falls Event Center, Nathan Margavich, Gallo Quality and Food Safety Manager made a similar presentation to the Recreational Tourism Committee put together by State Sen. Mike Fanning to deal with the impacts, implications and opportunities centered around nature-based tourism.
Both managers began their presentations by talking about the logo created for the Chester County Operations of Gallo: the logo is a pair of roosters looking inward towards a Palmetto tree with a South Carolina crescent moon in the sky. The rooster looking west represents the Gallo family logo (“Gallo” in Italian means rooster) and the rooster looking towards the west resembles a Carolina gamecock. The Palmetto and the crescent moon are South Carolina symbols.
“When we moved to South Carolina, we wanted to tie the corporate office in California, 2,700 miles apart, with the local culture. So we chose a version of the South Carolina gamecock,” said Margavich.
He provided some background of the history of the Gallo Winery and an overview of the company.
Chris Ray said the Gallo site in Fort Lawn is over 600 acres at the intersection of Hwy. 9 and Hwy. 21. Presently only 250 acres have been cleared and there is room for expansion.
One of the keys to the Fort Lawn facility is Gallo imports their raw materials through third-party managers. With the Chester County site, Gallo will be able to get their materials through the Port of Charleston and then distribute from the site as well.
“It’s very important for us to have an owned presence on the East Coast,” said Margavich. This facility in Chester County is the first facility on the East Coast.
The first phase of the plant, the Regional Distribution Center (RDC) will be operating in October and the bottling and canning operations will start up in February of next year.
Margavich said there would be three productions lines to begin with; one of which would operate 24/7 and one of the other two lines will alternate on a 24/7 schedule.
The Chester County facility will produce the High Noon Sun Sips seltzer brand and New Amsterdam vodkas in various flavors.
The facility will produce variety packs of the vodka-based seltzer, something that Gallo before had to outsource to another company.
The first three years of operations, the plant expects to employ about 275 associates, with that number rising to 400 at the five-year mark, or sooner than that. The first cohort of hourly employees just started this week, Margavich said.
Chris Ray said that the canning and bottling operations would begin with Line #2, for the High Noon seltzers, in the first Quarter of next year. In the second or third quarter, Gallo will open up a spirits line, which will produce the New Amsterdam vodka in the 50-ml. “airplane bottle” size. The third line will be the New Amsterdam vodka in 750-ml., 1 L. and 1.75 L. sizes.
The purpose-built building has been designed so that the raw materials enter in from the west side and finished product exits on the east side of the facility, in a linear fashion. The plant also includes two 100,000-gallon GNS (grain neutral spirits) storage tanks. This is where the spirit will be stored before it goes into the blending process to produce the seltzers and vodkas.
Employees will enter the facility from Hwy. 21 and the trucks will enter from the entrance off of Hwy. 9, Ray explained.
In answer to a question, Ray said that the facility would not produce any wines in Phase I of the facility, but it is planned for a future phase.
The plans for the future phases depends on what the market does, the Gallo reps said.
“The plans for the future phases will depend on the market. I know when I first came on the project, there was talk about a mix of products. That has shifted…we have all transitioned to working from home, and now we are starting to make our way back to our offices. Believe it or not, that really changes what people purchase. (More spirits and seltzers and less wines). That shift in product demand has changed how Gallo is positioning themselves in the market. What Phase II looks like, I can’t tell you at this point. But hopefully, soon as we get Phase I underway and we are operational, we’ll know more of what that looks like,” said Ray.
Of interest to the first responders and emergency personnel in the room, Ray said the company has “over-engineered our fire suppression system. It is a pretty robust system that has been tested, vetted and re-tested by our insurance carriers,” he said.
The company is considering whether they need a dedicated HAZMAT team on site or not. Ray says he has visited to the Fort Lawn Fire Department station and is aware of the plans that station has for expansion. Ray has been in contact with Fort Lawn Fire Chief David Dutton about future fire suppression efforts, and they have partnered with the department to supply equipment they may need to provide service to the site.
According to the Chester County Voter Registration Office, the following are the candidates so far that have field for the non-partisan Chester County School Board seats:
Reid Carrico has filed to run for the District 3 seat currently held by Jim Fuller.
Natalie Paul has filed to run for the District 4 seat currently held by Board Chair Doug Shannon.
Maggie James has filed to be re-elected to the District 6 seat she currently holds and Stephen Jackson has filed to run for the At-Large seat currently held by Dr. Anne Collins. Filing continues through August 15 at noon.
Judge Steven Hayes did not rule Monday on a pair of motions dealing with a potential class action lawsuit against the City of Chester.
The original lawsuit was filed by City of Chester fireman Micheal Waits in February. He claimed that since July of 2021, his employer withheld 9.75% of his salary, which was supposed to be paid into PORS (a branch of the State’s PEBA retirement system set up for police officers and firefighters). The money wasn’t paid into the system, though, nor was the additional contribution of 19.24% the City is supposed to make.
The suit by Waits claims he was never told of a change to his wages or deductions (as required by law). On top of that, he was also not earning due credit towards his retirement during that time period.
Shortly after Waits filed the suit, seven more employees joined him and class action status was sought by Everett Stubbs, attorney for the plaintiffs. The claims of the other seven employees joining the suit (Walter H. Stephenson IV, Ronald Wayne Levister, Jr., Interim Police Chief Milton Sims, MaKeesharia S. Williams-Tobias, Tyrel C. Graham, Tyler J. Covington and Nathaniel Meleke Cureton) mirrored those of Waits, that being that “the Defendant City of Chester has failed to transfer any funds to PEBA for the plaintiffs since June 20, 2021, missing the third and fourth quarterly payments in September of 2021 and December of 2021…Due to the Defendant City making no contributions (either their own or the withheld funds from Plaintiffs) towards the Plaintiffs’ participation in PORS, none of the Plaintiffs were given credit towards retirement for the months of July 2021, August 2021, September 2021, October 2021, November 2021 or December 2021. All eight plaintiffs allege the City provided them with incorrect records showing deductions being made from their checks for participation in PORS.”
One of the motions Hayes heard Monday in the Chester County Courthouse dealt with the suit attaining class action status. Attorney Joanie Winters, representing the City of Chester, briefly argued that she did not believe the total number of employees impacted would reach 50 and noted that the entire problem stemmed from a clerical mistake.
“A clerk, who was new, was entering the information but not uploading it to PEBA,” Winters said. “They got on the phone with PEBA and the issue has now been rectified.”
There was no malice involved, Winters said, just a mistake. There was also an issue with the potential class action suit not having been served properly. Stubbs said he would consent to a continuance on the matter, Winters was amenable and Hayes allowed it.
The other matter was a request by the City to receive relief from an entry of default Stubbs previously filed. In late April, Stubbs filed the motion as the City had not filed responsive pleadings within 30 days as required by the South Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure.” Essentially, given the City’s inaction, a judge could simply find in favor of the plaintiffs without a trial or further action. The filing from Stubbs said he personally served the lawsuit on now-former City of Chester Administrator Stephanie Jackson on March 15.
The person upon whom the suit was filed played a role in the City’s request for relief. In late March, Chester City Council fired Jackson. As she gathered what she believed were her personal belongings, Winters said Jackson apparently inadvertently removed some documents related to the lawsuit. Communication between she and the City was minimal in the immediate wake of her departure and as a result, “We didn’t get them back for a while,” Winters explained. She informed the City at that point she would not be representing them in the case, noting that she was busy with several other matters at the time. She advised City leaders to “give it to the insurance company.”
Winters also spoke of general “turmoil” at the City at the time. At the time of Jackson’s firing, Chester already lacked a human resources director, a finance director (and had for nearly three years) and a full-time police chief. Many front office staff members were pitching in on areas they didn’t typical deal with. She said that qualified as the “excusable neglect or surprise” under which the City is entitled to legal relief.
Meanwhile, Stubbs reached out to Winters via email and in-person about the case, with her having handled numerous employment-related cases and matters for the City before. He also contacted Chester City Attorney Latonya Dilligard-Edwards, who informed him she would not be handling the case either. Still, Stubbs said the suit was properly served on the City (in-person on Jackson) and that other City officials clearly knew about it. The lawsuit, he said, was apparently discussed by Chester City Council in executive session at the same meeting in which Jackson was fired.
“In fact, we believe this lawsuit ultimately led to her being fired,” Stubbs said.
Stubbs said he made every effort to “put everyone on notice” but got no response. At that point, with clients to serve and with the City having exceeded the legal timeframe, he said he was left with no choice but to seek a default judgment. He also noted the City’s insurance carrier was not present in the courtroom.
“Why not?” he asked rhetorically.
Winters, who is now representing the City in the matter, said Stubbs offered an open-ended extension at one point and that on another, while she was out-of-town due to a family death, she requested an extra two days to address things with City of Chester Interim Administrator Ed Driggers. Upon doing so, she said Stubbs informed her he had already filed the motion of default. Stubbs clarified that the open-ended extension dealt specifically with just the original Waits case, not the suit seeking class action status. He had a responsibility to his clients, he said, and noted that as word of the original suit had spread around, he continued to get calls from current and former City employees potentially looking to join the suit.
It was stressed that neither Winters nor Stubbs was accusing the other of breaching protocol in any manner, as both were responsive to the other through the process. Winters did so even when not yet officially representing the City and Stubbs sent a late “courtesy email” about the matter before seeking the default, not because he had to but only because he believed “it was the right thing for me to do.”
Hayes told both attorneys he wished to see them in his chambers once arguments ended. He never returned and did not rule on whether or not to give the City relief from the default judgment.