October 31, 2014

Five Richland County Sheriff’s deputies arrested on tax charges

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (FILE)

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (FILE)

Five Richland County Sheriff’s deputies have been arrested and fired after they were charged with fraud and tax evasion.

Sheriff Leon Lott announced the arrests Thursday of 48-year-old Vivian Belton, 32-year-old Bobby Cohens, 43-year-old Valerie Gibson, 40-year-old Cedric Jacobs, and 29-year-old Eddie West.

The sheriff said all five used fake dependent names on their returns in order to receive larger refunds from the Internal Revenue Service and South Carolina Department of Revenue. Lott said the investigation started with a different probe into Maribel Crespo, a former civilian employee in the department. He said investigators found Crespo was filing tax returns for the deputies and creating false identities for them to claim as dependents so they could get more money refunded.

The group fraudulently collected roughly $100,000 from state and federal tax refunds.

Crespo had been fired after her arrest in 2010 on identity theft fraud and misconduct in office charges that occurred while she worked with the county. Lott said Crespo had “bragged about the scheme to undercover officers. “That was the first tip,” he said. “And from there we just kept on going.”

He added that Crespo even “skimmed” money from the officers participating in the scheme. She is facing 13 counts of tax fraud, and has been given a $100,000 bond.

Lott apologized for the actions of his deputies. “Today’s one of those days you just want to scream and feel like you’re beating your head up against the wall when something like this happens,” he told reporters in a press conference.

Belton and Gibson both worked in the warrant division, while Cohens worked on fugitive cases and West was a road deputy. Jacobs was a school resource officer at Richland Northeast High School.


DUI charge dismissed against Chesterfield legislator

Vick can be seen briefly struggling with a BPS officer in dashcam video from his 2013 arrest (Courtesy: SCDPS)

Vick can be seen briefly struggling with a BPS officer in dashcam video from his 2013 arrest (Courtesy: SCDPS)

A 2013 DUI charge against State Representative Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, was dismissed Wednesday on a technicality.

Vick’s attorney Todd Rutherford successfully argued that the officers failed to use proper procedure in reading Vick his Miranda rights. Rutherford outlined Wednesday’s court proceedings in an interview with South Carolina Radio Network.

“I made a motion to dismiss the case based on the fact that the officer never read Mr. Vick’s Miranda warnings on video,” Rutherford said. “Despite Mr. Vick sitting in the police car for over 30 minutes, his Miranda warnings were never read on video.”

A judge had rejected an earlier request for dismissal from Rutherford, a legislator who is also the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, because a prosecutor provided an affidavit saying Vick’s rights were read off camera.

In May 2013, a Bureau of Protective Services officer said he stopped Vick after seeing the legislator drive his vehicle over a traffic cone while exiting the Statehouse parking garage. The same officer said he had earlier seen Vick stumbling while walking to his pickup. Vick said he was walking funny because he had a pebble in his shoe. He was arrested after refusing to take a field sobriety test, but admitted to having a glass of wine at a nearby restaurant on Main Street in Columbia.

Rutherford said some would point out that his client got off on a technicality, however, Rutherford added, the law is clear in the way it is written.

“I would suggest that the law is not a technicality; no different than DUIs are technicalities,” he said. “The law mandated that Miranda be read on video. It was not done,
the state knew that it was not done, and they held this case out for over a year-and-a-half knowing that and tried to proceed yesterday as if that didn’t matter.”

“But it did matter,” Rutherford added. “The judge read the law and he made the state abide by the law.”

Vick is in the last few months of his term after announcing earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. He still faces other drunken driving and weapons possession charges stemming from a separate 2012 arrest in Columbia.


Two Marion officers face jail time for repeatedly tasing mentally disabled woman

Two former Marion police officers are facing up to ten years in federal prison after they admitted using excessive force when they repeatedly tased a mentally disabled woman last year.

Former officers Eric Walters, 39, and Franklin Brown, 35, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of deprivation of rights after they used what investigators called “unreasonable” force while detaining the woman in April 2013. State Law Enforcement Division arrest warrants last year have not identified the woman or explained why she was being arrested.

According to details presented in court, the woman was tased by Walters even after she was handcuffed. Prosecutors said she fell to the ground and suffered a head injury during the incident. Court documents state Brown arrived at the scene shortly afterwards and continued to tase the woman even though she remained handcuffed and surrounded by law enforcement.

The two men admitted in court that there was no justification for their actions as the victim did not put them in any harm. Both men were relieved of their duties at the time of their arrest, according to the Marion Police Department.

“In this case, the officers abused (their) authority, and purposefully hurt the victim who at the time posed no threat to these officers or anyone else,” U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles said in a statement. “No just society can tolerate this sort of abuse by those who wear the badge.”

The former officers will be sentenced at a later date. Both could spend up to ten years in prison and pay a $250,000, although they will likely receive a reduced sentencing as part of their deal to plead guilty.

Jeremy Urso contributed to this report

Audit: Lottery’s failure to follow own policies contributed to embezzlement

LotteryA review by the Legislative Audit Council found that an employee of the South Carolina Education Lottery embezzled over $200,000 from April 2010 to August 2012 even though there were controls in place to prevent such fraud.

“They had policies in place to detect and prevent that type of fraud, but they didn’t follow them and so that kind of allowed the fraud to happen.” LAC director Perry Simpson told South Carolina Radio Network.

“In addition to following their policies they’ve implemented some additional controls to detect and prevent fraud in the future.” he added.

The State Law Enforcement Division arrested 52-year-old Anthony McNeil, a former accountant and fiscal analyst for the lottery, after an investigation in November 2012. McNeil was fired in October of that year after the discrepancies were found. According to investigators, McNeil embezzled over $226,000 from April 2010 to August 2012. The report also said that the affected money was on the finance side, and did not involve the games.

A deposition provided by SLED accused McNeil of manipulating and altering invoices that went out to various retail stores which sold lottery tickets. The deposition states that an internal audit found several invoices were manipulated so that certain retailers were not charged the required fees, while others were overcharged to make up the difference. Investigators say McNeil would then contact those retailers that had not paid and told them that a system error caused the confusion. He would then instruct those retailers to deposit the required funds into a separate account that he controlled.

Simpson said there were complaints made by the retail stores who suspected they were being overcharged, but the complaints were made to the very employee committing the fraud. The investigation did not begin until were made to other lottery employees.

McNeil has not yet had his day in court. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

The audit found McNeil recorded all of the bank account number changes in the system audit logs, but management did not review the logs. The report noted that since McNeil was authorized to make the changes and only made them sporadically, it may not have alerted management to the fraud.

Since the fraud was discovered, lottery officials have implemented a policy that prevents accountants from making changes to the bank accounts of retailers for which they are responsible. Now, a primary processor who does not have responsibility for any accounts will make any required changes. The Chief Financial Officer is also required to approve any changes to bank information before it can be entered in the computer system.




Man shot by state trooper says he hasn’t seen video, wants felony conviction of cop

Trooper Sean Groubert points his handgun and yells at Jones to "get out of the car" seconds before opening fire in this dashcam video (Image: SC Highway Patrol)

Trooper Sean Groubert points his handgun and yells at Jones to “get out of the car” seconds before opening fire in this dashcam video (Image: SC Highway Patrol)

An unarmed man shot by a South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper last month says he is recovering and getting support from around the country, but he wants the trooper who shot him to be prosecuted.

During an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning, Levar Jones said it’s too painful to watch the dashboard camera video of the incident that ended with him in the hospital and the trooper suspended.  The Highway Patrol later fired Trooper Sean Groubert after the Sept. 4 shooting and he now faces aggravated assault and battery charges. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith said the video showed the trooper had “reacted to a perceived threat where there was none.”

Jones told the Today Show that he hopes Groubert is convicted on the felony charge. “I really feel he needs to be charged with something that holds felony status,” he said. “That way he will… no longer be able to carry a gun, will no longer be able to be a police officer.”

The September 4 incident occurred at a gas station in northwest Columbia. The dashcam video shows Trooper Sean Groubert pulling up behind Jones’ SUV, just as Jones is stepping out of his car. Groubert asks the driver for his license. Jones feels his back pocket, then turns around to reach into his car. At that point Groubert yells “Get out of the car!” before immediately firing four shots, including one after Jones raised his hands into the air.

In the video, Jones goes to the ground and appeals, “I just got my license. You said get your license.” Groubert then asks Jones if he was hit and calls for an ambulance after the other man states he can’t feel his leg. “Why did you shoot me?” Jones can be heard asking. Groubert responds, “Well, you dove headfirst back into your car, then you jumped back out.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear two words,” Jones answers. Later, the injured driver asks Groubert why he had been stopped. Groubert answers, “Seat belt violation,” to which Jones angrily answers, “Seat belt? I just pulled it off right there at the corner as I pulled into the gas station.”

Jones said he does not think he will ever take the time to watch the video. “It brings back a lot of memories, for one,” he said. “Second off, it’s something that I really just have no interest in watching.”

Jones says over the past several weeks he has come to realize that the incident has not only affected, but the video has moved a lot of people emotionally. He said total strangers have told him they started crying after watching the video. “This is a situation where, right now, we need to take all these feelings and put them into a bigger cause.”

He added that he would like to see dash cams more widely used by law enforcement, as well as body cameras on their person that can record similar incidents away from a police cruiser.