Small SC county reels from corruption scandal

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 10:07 AM

When federal officials descended on this small South Carolina town to investigate a kickback scheme that had caught up the mayor and another official, they stumbled across a web of corruption they believe is deeper and more widespread through the county.

Authorities began looking into the 8,000-person town more than a year ago, announcing in July 2008 that now former Union Mayor Bruce Morgan and former zoning administrator Jeffrey Lawson were charged with multiple federal crimes, including seeking bribes and plotting to take thousands in kickbacks from building contractors.

Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to federal prison earlier this year.

Now, four other town and county officials face federal and state charges. The accusations include corruption, witness tampering and using public offices to store cocaine and methamphetamine.

As zoning administrator, Lawson had authority to supervise the competitive bidding process for city building contracts. He conspired with Morgan to demand contractors give them kickbacks in return for contracts, prosecutors said. The men extorted more than $30,000 from at least three contractors, authorities have said.

As agents investigated them, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Walt Wilkins says other allegations surfaced. A third man, Willard Farr, was charged this year with aiding and abetting Morgan and Lawson in the scheme.

Union County supervisor Donald Betenbaugh and Willie E. Randall Jr., the county's former tax assessor, also found themselves facing federal charges ranging from money laundering and accepting $50,000 in kickbacks to allowing Randall's office to be used to store drugs. Randall and another man, Lapriest Darnell Beacham, are also charged with distributing cocaine and methamphetamine.

Wilkins declined to give details about the pending cases, saying only that Farr is charged with ferrying a payment from a contractor to Morgan, keeping a portion for himself.

Other officials also have been charged.

"These investigations are always ongoing," Wilkins said Thursday.

On Main Street, shopkeepers say the town is focused on healing _ both from its bleak economy and from the scandals that have rocked it in waves.

"The good outweighs the bad," said Diane Jordan, a sales clerk at Keepsake Jewelers. "I feel like a clean sweep was necessary."

In state court, former Union County court clerk Brad Morris has been charged with embezzling $200,000 in public funds. Kevin Brackett, the county's lead prosecutor, said he became concerned after parents complained that child support payment checks written from accounts that Morris oversaw had bounced.

In yet another federal case, prosecutors charged former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells with lying to agents about money he loaned someone in exchange for interest he didn't report as taxable income.

A judge on Thursday set jury selection for all of the federal cases for Feb. 3, and the defendants have pleaded not guilty. Gov. Mark Sanford suspended Betenbaugh after his indictment.

It's for Wells and his most notable case that Union in the northwestern corner of the state is often remembered. First elected as sheriff in 1992 and only defeated last year, Wells was propelled into the national spotlight in 1994, in the case against Susan Smith.

Smith originally told investigators her two young sons from Union County had been taken in a carjacking, tearfully pleading on television for their return. But she later confessed to Wells that she had strapped them into their car seats and let the car roll into a lake. She is serving a life sentence.

Once home to thriving textile mills, and the site of historic Revolutionary War battles, Union County's unemployment rate now ranks among the top five in this state, which, itself, is traditionally home to one of the top jobless rates nationwide. In October, Union County's unemployment rate was 20.6 percent.

There's hope that men appointed to fill out the terms left by the indicted officials will restore the community's good name.

"Every single one of these boys, they came from good Christian homes," said Joyce McDade, manager of local department store, Graham Cash, said of the defendants. "Some people get into trouble and don't know better. They knew better."