COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina sheriff faces up to a year in prison and will lose his job after a jury found him guilty Thursday of misconduct in office.
A Greenville jury deliberated more than four hours before splitting its verdicts, finding suspended Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis guilty of misconduct that involves corruption or fraud, but not guilty of misconduct that involves not doing a public job properly.
The verdict came back after 10:30 p.m., so Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper delayed Lewis’ sentencing until Friday. Cooper wanted to keep Lewis in jail overnight since he faces up to a year in jail, but defense attorney Rauch Wise promised Lewis would return to court. The conviction requires Lewis to be removed from office.
"Mr. Lewis, if you aren't here tomorrow all hell is going to rain down on you," the judge said.
Lewis is the ninth sheriff in South Carolina to be convicted of crimes while in office in the past decade. The convicted sheriffs’ crimes have ranged from using inmates for personal work to running a scheme to create fake police reports to help fix credit problems to protecting drug dealers. Two other sheriffs are awaiting trials.
Lewis testified in his own defense in the four-day trial, saying he did not plan to have sex with his young female assistant at an out-of-town budget conference, but one thing led to another after they went out for drinks and ended up in her hotel room.
Prosecutors disagree. They said Lewis used his power to set up the encounter, first by hiring the woman at an inflated salary and then by setting up the trip and making excuses to get her alone.
No sexual assault charges have been filed against Lewis. The assistant, Savanah Nabors, was paid nearly $100,000 from a state insurance fund in May to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against Lewis, Greenville County and the sheriff's office.
In his testimony, the sheriff insisted several times that while his behavior was stupid, a violation of sheriff's office policy, and perhaps the kind of conduct for which he would fire an employee, it was not a crime. He said sex with the assistant was consensual. Nabors said it was not and wrote in a public blog about waking up to find him on top of her.
Prosecutors said Lewis, 43, hired the then-22-year-old Nabors to be his personal assistant after his 2016 election, paying her $62,000 a year in an agency where the starting salary for a deputy is around $30,000, to persuade her to have sex with him.
Lewis offered Nabors perks such as her own taxpayer-funded vehicle and parking space, and let her into crime scenes, despite her having no police training, prosecutors said.
South Carolina has a broad misconduct law that allows prosecutors to pursue charges against any public officials who don't do their jobs properly. The prosecutors in Lewis’ case said the sheriff misused county money to hire an unqualified person for an unnecessary position and that he used his power as sheriff to make Nabors fear for her job if she didn't do what he wanted.
Nabors had gone public with the details of what she called an unwanted sexual encounter with Lewis in 2017 in a Charlotte, North Carolina, hotel. She wrote in a blog that she woke up after drinks and the sheriff was on top of her and having sex.
Solicitor Kevin Brackett ended his closing argument Thursday by holding up a sheriff's badge he pulled from his pocket.
"Nobody hates a dirty cop more than a good one, because dirty cops like Will Lewis disgrace this badge," Brackett said as he asked jurors to hold Lewis accountable for abusing his power.
Wise, the defense attorney, said it was unlikely that Nabors was intimidated, given that she continued working for Lewis for months after their encounter. He said that having an affair is not illegal, even on a work trip.
"He had a one-night encounter with a subordinate in a hotel room that was paid for by the county. That is not a crime," Wise said. "That is a moral failing."
Lewis’ cross-examination Thursday was often testy, with the suspended sheriff vaguely answering yes-or-no questions and saying he was unable to recall events such as whether he went to Nabors’ room the night after they had sex to apologize. She said he did — and then made another unwanted sexual advance.
"You're avoiding all the questions because you know if you answer the questions correctly you look guilty, because you are guilty, right?" prosecutor Willy Thompson asked.
Lewis turned and looked directly at the jury.
"Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I'm not answering the questions the way that he wants to hear them answered, and that's the problem," he said.
Lewis testified that the sex with Nabors was spontaneous and started with her suddenly kissing him after he poured drinks in her hotel room.
Thompson alleged that Lewis planned the encounter carefully beforehand by pushing to have a budget retreat with county officials at an out-of-town hotel instead of in Greenville County; by bringing Nabors to the meetings even though she took no notes and hadn't been involved in drafting his new spending plans; and by making sure that a bottle of whiskey was in Nabors’ bag so he could go to her room late at night.
"You set up everything perfectly so you would have the opportunity," Thompson asked Lewis.
"Things fell into line," Lewis responded. "That was absolutely not a setup for anything."
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