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Public Safety inquiry over arrest interference prompts concerns

By Adam Benson, Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — An internal state Department of Public Safety report this month concluded a retired Highway Patrol administrator interfered in the 2014 arrest of a prominent Clemson booster, which lawmakers cite as an example of the culture that contributed to the impending departure of embattled Director Leroy Smith. “I think what we’re looking at here is a culture that was established and permitted under his leadership,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, a Clemson Republican and former judge who sits on the House Legislative Oversight Committee. “I think the fact the governor pulls the trigger on not to reappoint Director Smith and this coming out in a similar time frame is probably more coincidental than anything, but it’s another log on the fire.”

Smith said in an email to Department of Public Safety staffers this week that he wouldn’t be appointed to a third term by Gov. Henry McMaster. His term ends Feb. 1. Smith came to South Carolina in 2011 from Florida to serve in former Gov. Nikki Haley’s Cabinet.

The news came two weeks after the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility completed a probe into the actions of an Upstate Highway Patrol captain stemming from the 2014 DUI arrest of Stanley Riggins, a donor to Clemson University’s athletic booster program.

Before the Clemson donor could be processed on a DUI and open-container charge by a state trooper, former Highway Patrol Capt. Stacey Craven — the supervisor — came to the Pickens County jail and released the donor to his family, according to a copy of the 96-page investigative report obtained by The Post and Courier. The DUI charge was dropped in April 2017, but Riggins, who has a Clemson football endowment named after him, paid a $257 fine for the open-container charge, according to a solicitor’s report.

On Nov. 14, investigators concluded that Craven intervened inappropriately in the arrest. But the report rejected allegations he received “personal gain or benefit” for his actions and lied to State Law Enforcement Division agents during the inquiry.

Public Safety agency officials declined to comment on the report, as did McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.

The department’s findings came on the heels of an Oct. 7 conclusion by 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard that insufficient evidence existed to pursue criminal charges of misconduct in office or obstruction of justice against Craven. Hubbard, whose circuit includes Lexington County, was asked by 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins to investigate the allegations against Craven.

“We make no findings as to whether Craven’s actions and lack of candor violated any departmental policies,” Hubbard said. “That is a matter for the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.”

Craven retired Oct. 25. Craven worked with the agency for 30 years and twice commanded a regional troop, Highway Patrol Capt. R.K. Hughes said.

Rep. Eddie Tallon, a Spartanburg Republican and a former SLED agent, said he was troubled after reviewing the Public Safety agency’s report.

“I was very shocked that they could come back with the conclusion they came back with,” said Tallon, who chairs the House Legislative Oversight Committee’s law enforcement and criminal justice subcommittee. “The (investigative) report, as I see it, is centered around the allegations they wanted to look at.”

Tallon said the probe stoked his concerns that some within the Highway Patrol are treated more favorably than others.

“It certainly gives me question about that,” he said.

Clary said he was reminded of a dramatic House Oversight Committee hearing in November 2017, when David Whatley, a 29-year Highway Patrol veteran, handed his resignation to Smith because of inconsistent discipline.

“It’s tough to walk away from something like this — something you love — but you have someone destroying it, and I can’t fix it, so I’m choosing to walk away,” Whatley said as he handed his resignation to Smith.

Clary said the investigative report into the handling of the arrest of the Clemson donor reinforced Whatley’s assertion. “There’s a lot of outside influence of people that try to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Highway Patrol,” he said.

Tallon praised McMaster’s decision to move on from Smith. “I think that the governor really stepped up and did what he thought was right, and I commend him for making this decision on not reappointing the director. The governor is very concerned about the morale of the troops,” Tallon said. “He knows that you can’t do your job if you’re being micromanaged, and whoever his choice will be will be given that direction.”

McMaster has nominated North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess to be the next agency director. Burgess will need to be confirmed by the state Senate.