SENECA — Voters choosing a sheriff in one South Carolina county can pick from four men accused of doing something wrong, including a former Secret Service agent accused of trying to kidnap someone and a second man investigated by state agents.
If neither suits their fancy, voters also can pick from a former deputy who was fired last year after his bosses accused him of lying on his time sheets, or the current chief deputy, who was the No. 2 man at the agency when a former office manager stole more than $500,000 forfeited by drug dealers. All four men deny any wrongdoing.
“It's a travesty for all the people of Oconee County,” said Jeff Bright, an engineer who backed the ex-Secret Service agent facing the felony charge, James Bartee.
To top it all off, they will all have to conduct write-in campaigns or get back on the ballot in November through collecting signatures. All four were kicked off the ballot Wednesday because of mistakes filing campaign paperwork, just six days before the Republican primary. No Democrats were running for the seat.
Most people expected an intense campaign after 20-year Sheriff James Singleton announced his retirement. But the ugliness has become unsettling: Salacious allegations with little to back them up are swirling on Facebook, and the candidates frequently trade copies of court documents and personnel files at forums.
The sheriff's office is typically an important seat of power in South Carolina, where strict incorporation laws mean 65 percent of the state's residents don't live in cities or towns. Sheriffs often control jails, can hire and fire anyone and have tight control over finances – in Oconee County, the sheriff's office gets nearly 15 percent of the $43 million budget for the county of about 74,000 people. They also choose what their deputies concentrate on, meaning drugs may be a focus in one county while it's traffic control in another.
Oconee County is a rural area of haves and have-nots: Wealthy retirees attracted by the beautiful waters of Lake Keowee and the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from lakeside mansions contrast with the remnants of mill villages where nearly a third of households make less than $35,000 a year, according to U.S. Census figures.
Candidates are willing to spend big bucks to get the job, too. With weeks left before what was supposed to be the election, campaign finance documents showed the four Oconee County candidates spent a combined $130,000, or about $3 per registered voter, for a job that pays anywhere from $68,000 to $103,000 a year depending on experience.
Leading the spending was Bartee, who has loaned more than $34,000 to his own campaign. He spent more than two decades with the U.S. Secret Service, and his website shows him on the presidential protection details for Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He also, for the first time in his life, is facing a felony charge.
The State Law Enforcement Division said Bartee was taped asking someone to arrange the kidnapping of a former judge so he would miss a court hearing questioning whether Bartee has the proper credentials to be sheriff. Bartee was hauled off to jail in the middle of that hearing, which has been suspended, and charged with solicitation of a felony.
Bartee vigorously maintains his innocence, saying he was trying to stop the kidnapping. The tone of his campaign has changed. On the billboards he bought months ago is the slogan: “Businessman. Gentleman. Lawman. Your Man.” Recently, as he held a fundraiser in a karaoke bar for his defense, he spent a lot of time explaining the arrest and telling people, “it's time to get the pigs out of the water.”
Bartee appeared at a candidate forum 12 hours after he bonded out of jail, telling the audience he has heard horrible stories of police abusing their power in the county. He said if someone like him could be railroaded, then anyone in the county could wind up in a heap of trouble.
“I thought it was going to be tough going against an ingrained system,” Bartee said a week after his May 30 arrest. “But I never thought it would go this far.”
Then, one day after the karaoke bar event, Bartee abruptly decided to drop his run for sheriff and campaign for state Senate instead. He said spending a night in jail made him realize the system is broken in a much bigger area than Oconee County.
The man who turned in Bartee is Nick Blackwell, 28, a laid-off tree trimmer who also filed an assault complaint that led to the state investigation into the second sheriff's candidate, Donnie Fricks. Blackwell accused Fricks of grabbing him at a festival in April as he passed out documents about Fricks' divorce and three-decade-old criminal charges.
Fricks was an Oconee County deputy for 12 years before leaving the force in 2005, and then spent about five years as a consultant for police organizing in Afghanistan. He said he was not arrested and was cleared of wrongdoing, though police did not return messages from The Associated Press asking to discuss the case.
Fricks and others have suggested Blackwell is a sheriff's office informant and is smearing them to repay debts to the agency, which Blackwell has denied.
When a reporter walked up his driveway Wednesday, Blackwell suddenly came out wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a rifle, pointed at the ground. He agreed to talk only after frisking the reporter, warning that a sniper inside his home was watching their every move.
Blackwell said he was a Bartee supporter until the candidate stunned him by suggesting the kidnapping. He insisted he was not an informant and said he fears for his life after being labeled as such in the local paper. He said someone fired shots at his home in 2008 – three windows don't match. Blackwell refused to discuss the why he's gotten involved in the sheriff's race, though Fricks dismissed him as a “troublemaker.”
Plenty of others have their own theory. Blackwell admitted shooting a man six times in March 2011, but said it was self-defense after the other man pulled a gun. Oconee County deputies are still investigating the case, but no charges have been filed.
The other two candidates, former Oconee County deputy Mike Crenshaw and current Chief Deputy Terry Wilson, also have found themselves on the defensive at recent candidate forums.
Crenshaw was fired last year after the sheriff accused him of lying on his timesheets, spending hours at home when he was supposed to be working, using as evidence a GPS device attached to Crenshaw's official vehicle by internal affairs investigators. Crenshaw said the sheriff and his hand-picked top management had become so paranoid they were spying on officers they did not like, so he took to doing work at home where he knew his phones weren't tapped and his files wouldn't be rifled through.
Accountability has also become a big issue. Wilson insists he did not know drug money was being stolen from the sheriff's office for two years and helped put in place safeguards so it doesn't happen again. It's obvious there are a lot of people not too happy with the current organization. Wilson's website doesn't once mention his retiring boss and promises to provide “a new direction and new ideas.”
Before he found out all four candidates were tossed off the ballot along with dozens of other candidates across South Carolina who got bad advice from the parties about filing certain required economic statements, Richard Dubber was trying to figure out who to vote for. He doesn't think the office is doing a good job, but he can't find out what issues the candidates stand for, or what they would fight against because of all the crazy allegations.
“I'm trying very hard to find out the news,” Dubber said as he loaded his groceries in his car at the Seneca Walmart. “But all I keep hearing is this silly gossip.”