Former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood did not have to report to federal prison Thursday as originally scheduled.
Underwood was found guilty on several counts last April including a conspiracy charge in relation to wire fraud, federal program theft or falsification of records, civil rights violations (related to the November 2018 arrest of Kevin Simpson) and additional federal program theft and conspiracy charges. In July, he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison.
Last Monday, Underwood’s new attorney Elizabeth Franklin-Best filed a motion for release pending appeal. If approved by a judge, it would allow Underwood to remain free on bond until his appeal is heard. The motion quotes laws about release or detention pending appeal, saying that “the judicial officer shall order that a person who has been found guilty of an offense and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and who has filed an appeal or a petition for a writ of certiorari, be detained, unless the judicial officer finds…by clear and convincing evidence that the person is not likely to flee or pose a danger to the safety of any person or the community if released…and that the appeal is not for the purpose of delay and raises substantial question of law or fact likely to result in reversal, an order for a new trial, a sentence that does not include a term of imprisonment or a reduced sentence…”
The motion cites Underwood’s “lifelong commitment to law enforcement,” claims he would poses a threat to the community and that there is no reason for the court to suspect the filing was a stall tactic since he “has consistently submitted to the authority of this court.”
The motion notes that Underwood was acquitted on three of the four civil rights violations with which he was charged and “there is reason to believe that once considered by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, the other count will also be found to be infirm because the district court erred in excluding Mr. Underwood’s evidence that constituted his defense and would have shown the jury that his actions that night were reasonable (related to the arrest of Simpson).” Specifically, Underwood sought to enlist “his expert, Ray Nash” president and founder of Police Dynamic Institute and a long-time law enforcement officer, to testify on his behalf “relative to the alleged civil right violation” of Simpson, but claims his testimony was unduly challenged and limited.
To orders were issued Wednesday by Attorney Joseph Anderson, who is now handling the case. The first said the United States Attorney’s Office “is requested to file a memorandum setting forth the government’s positions as to the defendant’s motion within 21 days from the date of this order.”
The second order says the court “find it prudent to delay the defendant’s reporting date by 30 days from the date of this order to allow time to adjudicate the defendant’s motion for appellate bond.” With that, Underwood’s reporting date was stayed until Oct 14, with the government’s response to the motion for release due by Oct. 4.
Per the filings, U.S. Attorney William Miller, one of the government lawyers that prosecuted Underwood, has indicated he does not support Underwood remaining free while he his appeal is being considered. Underwood was originally set to self-report to federal prison on Sept. 15.
Every law enforcement professional at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office Award Ceremony has probably heard George Strait’s “The Weight of the Badge.” Retired SLED Major George Booth reminded them what it means to carry that weight.
Booth was the guest speaker at the first Chester County Sheriff’s Office Awards Ceremony. The event was sponsored by the Foundation for the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.
Booth was invited to speak at the ceremony by Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey, who was mentored by Booth when they were both SLED agents. He is a 33-year law enforcement veteran and served previously as the Sheriff of Saluda County and a past S.C. Sheriff of the Year.
He told the law enforcement professionals, “I want you to understand something tonight: you are in the company of heroes. Look around you at these men and women, wearing badges, wearing uniforms. Dispatchers. Correctional officers. You are among heroes.
“In a time when there are thousands of “sideline quarterbacks” every day, second-guessing what these heroes do, what they should have done, what they could have done. But hand them the ball and say ‘you take the ball’ and ‘come out here and you put on the uniform, come out here with us’. The sideline quarterbacks never step on the field. The field of honor, where you heroes work every day,” Booth said.
“You are building something here in the Chester Sheriff’s Office: you are building something called a team. We are all familiar with teams, there’s football teams, baseball teams, all kind of teams. You have formed a team. Every member of that team is a vital part of it…you have to love it — your heart’s got to be in it. The team won’t survive if you lay down and say ‘I’m just not feeling it, I’m just not there today.’ You’re there every day,” he said.
Booth threw out some words that he reckoned the audience could tell him a little something about: gold, diamond and money. Then he threw out some words that were of value to the team at the CCSO: character, loyalty, honor, integrity and fear.
“Can you describe all of those? You can use some time telling me about those. Those words apply to the heroes seated here tonight.
“You don’t have to wear a badge or carry a gun to be a hero. Do we have dispatchers here tonight? They’re some of the most unsung, valuable members of this team. Because when you’re out there at two in the morning, stopping a car or you’re walking up to a door and you don’t know who’s going to open int. And there is nobody there but you and the Good Lord, and you walk up, and sign out at that location, and you call dispatch, and a man or woman hears what you’re telling them, and they write it down. They get to know you, officers, ladies and gentlemen who are wearing that badge and carrying that gun. They know you, they see you. And when you’re into something bad, maybe someone shot at you, maybe you’re fighting for your life out in a ditch and it’s pouring rain, you get back to the radio and you call for help, can you imagine the stress for that dispatcher that heard that call? That’s your lifeline, folks. Those are heroes,” he said.
“Corrections officers. They have a terribly dangerous job, because when I as a police officer get out there and wrestle them and put the cuffs on them or do whatever I have to bring them to the jail, I turn them over to the jail and they check them in. There’s people on dope, people wanting to fight. Those are the people the corrections folks have to deal with. They have to be all kind of things: willing to wrestle and fight if they have to, or a kind and understanding voice. Those are heroes.”
Booth said everyone was in the presence of greatness, because in this time, there is more danger in being a police officer than ever before.
He said the words he threw out at the beginning “describe what you do. Those words belong to you.
“You carry a lot of stress; you take it home with you. Your family, your children, your wives. Officers who carry that badge and that gun, when you leave and drive out of the driveway, your wife, husband and loved ones…sometimes they think you are in a life and death struggle out there (and you might not be; they may have cancelled the call). But I learned one thing with my wife: you better call and tell her you’re okay. Because when you left, it was a crisis. Remember the ones that when we drive off, they are holding our hearts back at home.”
Booth has also been a training officer, and he gave the law enforcement professionals some advice in the from of three words:
“Watch. Their. Hands.”
Booth said the perpetrators will tell the officers what they’re going to do, what their intentions are, and they can see it by watching their hands.
He told the officers who might long for the “Good Old Days”.
“You are living the Good Old Days today. Right now. Appreciate them. Look at that partner, that dispatcher that corrections officer, and tell them that you appreciate them, that they are a part of that team,” he said.
Booth then reached into his pocket and showed his SLED badge.
“I carry it, y’all. It makes me get emotional, because I wore it a long time…you that are wearing them, do you remember the day they handed it to you? Do you remember the day when you held it in your hand? The weight of the Badge. You’ve heard the song? You remember you pinned it on that uniform? Remember the shine of it? Your life is in it. You swore an oath to protect it and to serve the citizens. Y’all did it to protect the citizens of Chester County.
“That Badge stands for a whole lot. The only thing I ask: is the day you retire, that the Badge shines just as brightly as the first time you put it on.”
The failure to pay withheld money from the paychecks of some City employees into the State retirement system appears to have been partly due to an oversight, but partly due to necessary procedures simply being left undone.
City of Chester Fireman Michael Waits filed a lawsuit over the matter in February. He claimed that since July of 2021, his employer withheld 9.75% of his salary, which is 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). So there was a financial angle but he was also not earning due credit towards his retirement time.
Shortly after Waits filed the suit, seven more employees joined him and class action status was sought. The claims of the seven new City 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) mirror 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. The suit calls the City’s actions “willful, wanton and reckless,” says that the employees are legally entitled to three times the amount of money they are due and class action status is being sought.
The News & Reporter obtained and reviewed more than 10,000 pages of emails through a Freedom Information Act from now-former City Administrator Stephanie Jackson, many of which dealt with the issue. For starters, no one involved in City government was apparently aware of the lawsuit until a News & Reporter story detailing the action from Waits was published.
“Mayor Stringfellow and members of Council…Ms. Fair just brought to my attention that an employee has filed a suit against the City for failure to report funds to the retirement system. I have not had an opportunity to read the article and have not been served with a lawsuit. Just wanting to make you aware of this information. We are not certain of what is being claimed, but he is a current full-time fireman. I will keep you informed as I learn more,” Jackson wrote on Feb. 25.
Council members Tabatha Strother and Carlos Williams quickly responded, saying that the matter needed to be added to the agenda for the next Chester City Council meeting, which was coming up the next week.
On March 2 Jackson emailed the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC) to indicate the lawsuit had been served on attorney Joanie Winters, who handles labor matters for the City. She was told to submit a claim so that an adjuster could be assigned. Jackson explained that she was home sick, had still not seen the lawsuit herself and that she would be in her office the next day to enter whatever relevant information she could at that point. When the additional employees signed onto the lawsuit, Jackson again contacted the MASC and was told to submit the suit so an adjuster could be assigned.
Jackson’s emails indicate that there were problems related to PEBA months before the Waits lawsuit was even filed. On Nov. 30, 2021, Tosha Graham (with PEBA’s retirement member account services) emailed a City staff member about the pending retirement of an employee.
“We are finalizing the retirement for Mr. (redacted) and we need some additional information. Please provide a detail pay history for April 1, 2017-September 30, 2021,” Graham wrote.
There was apparently no response for some time as Graham emailed again on Dec. 16 with a copy of the previous email and to inquire as to whether the requested information would be sent. The information was apparently sent the next day, but by January 14 Graham wrote again and seemed to indicate some due monies had not been paid.
“We spoke yesterday about an update for Mr. (redacted)…Per the covered employer procedures manual, pg. 27 ‘Contributions are deductible up to and including 45 days terminations pay for unused annual leave’ for Class II members. In case it was presented as if there was an option to send the missing contributions. There is no option. Please advise when we should receive the missing contributions,” Graham said.
Jackson responded later that day to say, “We will comply with whatever needs to be done.” Even so, by Feb. 3, whatever was owed had apparently still not been paid as Graham again emailed and asked for an update on (redacted)’s “missing annual leave contributions.” Twenty days later Graham received a response from a City staff member asking, “What is the process for the City of Chester to cover his missing contributions.”
Part of the problem may have been a lack of access to the system, as was evidenced by an email from Feb. 1. At that point, a City employee working in payroll had received a message from PEBA indicating they were locked out of the system.
“Your EES account has been locked due to your employer failing to complete the EES recertification by the due date. Your EES authorizing contact: Stephanie Jackson needs to sign in to EES and complete the recertification for your EES account to be unlocked,” the message said.
“I just saw this morning. I will check to see who we need to contact and let you know,” Jackson responded to the employee.
Jackson also received a notification from PEBA saying the City’s accounts had been locked because of recertification not being completed by the due date.
That wasn’t the only communication Jackson had with PEBA. On January 31, she received an email from PEBA’s Janice Bennett, who worked on employer audits indicating that the City had not undergone an audit of retirement since 2018 (incidentally that was the year Jackson was hired as administrator).
“Please review the attachment, verify/provide the contact information and mailing address and reply to the four questions in the middle of the page. Once I receive your reply, I will draft the engagement letter and send an encrypted email…in order for you to securely transmit the requested payroll information listed at the bottom of the attachment,” Bennett wrote.
Seventeen days letter (and only eight days before Jackson learned of the Waits lawsuit), Bennett had still apparently not received a response to her original email.
“Hi Stephanie. I never received this information to begin the audit. Please let me know if you have any questions,” Bennett wrote in an email with the subject line “employer audit-2nd request.”
Three days after the second email from Bennett, Jackson replied, saying she and a payroll clerk would be “working on these questions ASAP as we are currently working on another audit” and said she had been out-of-town the previous week.
By Feb. 28, Bennett had received some information from the City, at least enough (per an email) to draft and send an engagement letter.
On Feb. 25, the same day Jackson learned of the Waits lawsuit, a City payroll clerk received an email from Courtney Dickey (with PEBA retirement member account services) asking about missing payments and quarterly reports…the subject of the Waits lawsuit.
“Please review and advise as to when we can expect to receive payment and quarterly reports for the missing months indicated below. Our records indicate that the City of Chester has yet to remit for the following fiscal period,” Dickey wrote.
An attachment showed that retirement payments for October, November and December of 2021 were in delinquent status and that January and February 2022 payments had not been made. Within four hours, Dickey received a response from the payroll clerk.
“Payments were sent overnight mail today and will arrive tomorrow, Saturday, February 26, 2022. Question, I have an employee who said they see no contributions for 2021. Payments and reports were submitted. Am I missing a step?”
In the following correspondences, it was revealed that the City employee who had said they saw none of their contributions listed was actually Stephanie Jackson.
“I see reporting through June 2021 quarter. Stephanie Jackson will not see reporting for September or December 2021 because you have not submitted them yet,” Dickey replied.
The clerk indicated there had been an oversight.
“OK, that is where the issue lies. How do I submit the reports? Please forgive (me) for seeming a tad lost as I am new in the position and thought the reports were submitted with payments,” the payroll clerk wrote.
She later mentioned that, “during the process of sending payments and reports, I definitely missed the step of uploading the report to the PEBA system. “ Several pages of emails that appear connected to the matter are redacted.
On Feb. 14, a City employee emailed both Jackson and Marc Wood (a CPA that has helped the City with finances in the absence of a finance director) to indicate that she had put “a Renaissance bill” (dealing with insurance) under the door of another employee that was postmarked Jan. 28 that had apparently still not been paid.
“And today we got a letter from PEBA,” the employee wrote. “I think these bills have to be paid.”
Jackson did not respond until four days later but said, “We need to pay this” once she did. Wood said that the problem was an ongoing one and a result of things simply not being done. He expressed “concern” about invoices being placed in a “to do” basket and then just being left there and not looked at or dealt with.
“We need to get this problem resolved,” he wrote.
Jackson said she would work with the employee to get the problem resolved and noted the employee was having to perform duties well beyond the normal scope of her work because of staff vacancies.
“I know, but we had some other bills that were late when I was there last time,” Wood responded, noting that those bills were late because they just sat in an employee’s mailbox.
Employees apparently knew there was a problem with PEBA by early February. On Feb. 7, a police officer wrote Jackson to inquire about whether she had received the job application, doctor’s approval letter and other documents necessary for them to return to work. The officer asked whether a decision about their ability to come back to work had been made and they noted that “the PD is severely short staffed and I’m ready to hit the ground running on patrol to help the citizens of Chester.” The name is redacted, but the same officer appeared to email Jackson again the next day. The officer said they understood that Jackson did have their paperwork but said there was another problem of which they had become aware on the City’s end that was impacting them financially.
“If you choose not to let me return I understand, but I have received word that the City of Chester has not returned the proper paperwork to PEBA so I can receive my police retirement in case I’m not hired back. I was let go in September 2021 but that hasn’t been updated to the SC retirement board. I can’t (receive) my state police retirement funds until the city turns in this paperwork…Again, I hope to return to work with the PD, but if that’s not the case can you please update PEBA so I can receive my retirement funds,” the officer wrote.
Even once the PEBA issues had presumably been addressed, there were still problems. Dickey emailed Jackson and another City employee on March 22, just six days before Jackson was terminated, with a list of “items to which we need to draw your attention.” Per the email, seven people did not have an active account, two employees appeared to be enrolled improperly and two “retired members (were) missing a return to work date…retiree contributions were not posted …in the September 2021 quarter and as such our system interprets the break in reporting to represent a termination event.” One person was having the incorrect percentage of their salary withheld.
On March 1, the City received “a friendly reminder” that PEBA was making an attempt to clear an outstanding accounts receivable balance. The total due was $1,526.39 and came from eight separate interest assessments dating back to November and December of 2021. An email from Jackson on March 8 indicated the total had been paid.
The matter of the lawsuit brought by Waits and other employees is nearing completion. Attorney for the employees, Everett Stubbs, filed a motion for an entry of default after the City failed to respond to the lawsuit in time. The City asked for relief from that in court in July, but a ruling recently came down in favor of the employees. The only unknown is what sort of damages the employees impacted by the PEBA issues, which lingered for months, will be awarded.
The City of Chester fell months behind on making employee contributions to the state retirement system and may pay a steep price for doing so after a recent court ruling (see related story). That was not the only instance of the City being delinquent on making payments, however.
A review of thousands of City emails (obtained by the News & Reporter through a Freedom of Information Act request) showed a regular pattern of the City falling behind on bills, entering delinquent status, often having to scramble to overnight payments to various entities and sometimes not responding to inquiries about past due bills for long periods of time. There also appear to have been issues with delivering necessary documents to employees in a timely fashion.
On Feb. 1 of this year, a member of the City’s front office staff emailed Jackson about a past due bill to Duke Energy. The employee noted that it took an entire day to get someone on the phone and resolve an issue dealing with a bill that was “red flagged” in “the portal.”
“She was able to take the flag off and extend the deadline for that bill to be paid by next Monday; in which we need to make a payment by the end of this week for the ones due the 7th and 8th,” the employee wrote.
There were continued issues with Duke. On March 2, an employee wrote to Jackson to detail a 45-minute phone call with the company discussing “the eight accounts that were past due.”
“They did not see where I made a payment online. And there were no disconnections or disconnect fees. Therefore, as soon as I ended the call, I made the payment online for those that were past due,” the City employee wrote.
Among those was a bill totaling $56,540 for “street lighting.” The others ranged from $554.33 to $32.52.
On Jan. 20, a representative from Creative Billing Solutions (a third-party administrator that deals with employee benefits and services) sent a reminder email to Jackson and at least one other member of City staff (that name is redacted) that a confirmation was needed to authorize a draw on the City’s account for January deductions. The draw was scheduled for January 31. Eight days later there had apparently been no response, since a second email came in relating to the draw.
“Can you confirm please, are we OK to draw the amount due on the January invoice? $1,048.38,” Ronna Rapach of Creative Billing Solutions wrote.
The lack of response was apparently problematic, so a third email was sent just three hours later and marked with “high” importance.
“Have you had a chance to review please for any terminations or changes? Are we OK to draw payment for January as billed?” wrote Creative Billing Solutions Billing Manager Ann Thompson.
There is not a response found in that email chain, though someone form the City could have communicated via telephone.
On February 14, a City employee emailed both Jackson and Marc Wood (a CPA that has helped the City with finances in the absence of a full-time finance director in the past three years) about a Renaissance Insurance bill dated January 28 having been given to another staff member who had apparently not processed it. A separate email indicates the Renaissance bill was not the only insurance payment upon which the City had slipped into delinquent status. Just four minutes after Jackson sent an email regarding the Renaissance bill saying, “we need to pay this” (which came four days after the staff member made the matter known and was sent at 2:38 a.m.), she then emailed multiple staff members.
“I understand we have some delinquent insurance payments that must be taken care of immediately (Renaissance, State Retirement, New York Life and Colonial Life),” she wrote.
She urged that the checks should be written that day and overnighted, if necessary and said if there were others, they should be added to the list.
On Feb. 17, Jackson received an email from Grazier Rhea with the COG (Catawba Regional Council of Governments) requesting that some questions be answered and forms completed related to a USDA grant for the Chester Pavilion Project. There was a quick response from Jackson indicating she was not in the office but would return the next day to complete the requested task. She copied a City staff member on the response and asked that the forms be printed and put under her office door so that it would be “the first thing that I do when I get into the office.” Three days later, though, Rhea had apparently still not received the materials.
“I am checking on the signed USDA Federal Financial Report for the Chester Pavilion Project for the period ending 12/21/21. I did not receive it on Friday, so please send it when you are back in the office this week. I also need for you to answer the questions highlighted below so that I can try to complete the quarterly project performance reports prior to my involvement in August 2019. As you are aware, we cannot draw down any USDA funds until these items are completed,” Rhea wrote.
Four days later, Rhea emailed again to tell Jackson that if she could not sign the documents with Docu-sign (electronic signature) she should print them and sign them the following day. Jackson responded that she did not think the correct document had been sent, but Rhea assured her it had been.
On March 13, Jackson received a cluster of emails from Mace Green Builders regarding three unpaid invoices that were all past due. One invoice was for $7,183 which covered placement of acoustical tiles along a hallway, painting of doors along a hallway, overhead tile placement in the entrance to a gym, tile replacement in a weight room and other items all related to the aquatics and fitness center. The second was for $1,508 for materials and “services” and the third was for $4,889 for painting services.
On March 18, the City received an email regarding lease payments on various copiers and printers. Per the email, payments from February, June, August and September of 2021 (totaling almost $7,000) had not been paid.
“Please call to go over so we can look to get this contract cleared,” the company wrote.
On March 23, just five days before she was fired, Jackson was emailing various staff members about missing credit card forms for purchases at Lowes and Academy Sports (totaling almost $1,400) and asking if anyone remembered making the purchases. Around the same time, a City staff member emailed Jackson and others asking if they had seen a longer list of credit card payments.
On March 24, an email from the Department of Health and Environmental Control noted the City had a past due invoice related to Wylie Park.
Bill were apparently not the only things that were tardy where the City of Chester was concerned at times early this year. On March 16, Councilwoman Tabatha Strother emailed Jackson and members of the finance committee about a recent conversation she’d had with Phillip Thompson-King, executive director of Chester Wastewater Recovery.
“He stated that he has not received the itemized statement of the Sewer District’s monies that he requested in November when he came before council during executive session,” she wrote.
On Feb. 7 Bradley George with the George Agency wrote to Jackson and at least one front office staff member about information for 1095 forms.
“Just wanted this to serve as a friendly reminder as applicable large employers (over 50 full-time equivalents) are required to submit 1095C (by 3/2/22) and 1094C (by 2/28/22),” he wrote.
On March 15, George had apparently not received a response and reached out again.
“Just wanted to circle back around to this to make sure the city filed their 1095 forms by the deadline of 2/28/22 to avoid any penalties…If not, you can file for a 30-day extension,” George said.
On March 18, Jackson emailed Wood to say, “We need assistance with filing these forms.” He responded to say he would look at them when he came in Monday. The days on which the emails were sent certainly gives the appearance that the City filed the forms late.
Payments due were apparently not the only things that lagged in City government as there is an indication that employees received their W-2 tax forms past the legal deadline this year.
“Could you please provide an update as to when (we) will have our W2s? I believe we are past the legal deadline to when they were supposed to have been issued,” Strother wrote on Feb. 8. W-2 tax forms are legally supposed to be delivered to employees by January 31. That email was sent to both Jackson and at least one member of City Hall staff. The staff member answered later that day saying, “I am well aware of the legal deadline, Councilwoman Strother. W-2s are on the way.”
Still, there was a separate email sent on Feb. 17 indicating that suspended former Police Chief Eric Williams and former officer Travis Moore had still not gotten their forms.
City leaders themselves have publicly offered a variety of reasons that some bills have been allowed to lapse into past due status. The City has had well-documented issues with cash flow, particularly in recent years. Not long before his 2019 retirement, former Finance Director Jerry Baker said the City “scratched” to make every payroll. There were instances of the City dipping into a sewer fund and cashing certificates of deposit to make ends meet. Even more recently, Wood detailed that the City puts a priority on paying employees and then takes care of other bills and Interim City Administrator Ed Driggers told the Council a few months ago that the City is on pace to be out of money by next July.
Beyond simply not having money, Jackson pointed out late in her tenure that she was having to do her job, plus that of the finance director and HR director since those two positions had been left vacant for long periods of time. In issues related to falling behind in making contributions into the state retirement system, Jackson said front office staff members were having to take on additional duties, including many that were outside the scope of their normal job responsibilities. At the time Jackson was dismissed, some members of the Council countered that many important jobs, including department head level positions, had stayed open for so long because Jackson would not advertise the jobs as open, despite being directed to do so by the Council.