S.C. Senate gives SLED funding to investigate public corruption after Uncovered project


South Carolina's top law enforcement agency asked for help fighting public corruption. Last week, the state Senate delivered - approving a proposed $10 billion state budget that includes funds for the State Law Enforcement Division to hire a forensic auditor this summer to help determine if public monies are being stolen or abused.

The vote comes two months after The Post and Courier reported that SLED doesn't employ a single white-collar crimes investigator, a void that has hamstrung the agency's ability to bring cases against crooked politicians and public officials.

Filling that position is among the recommendations that have emerged from The Post and Courier's Uncovered series, a yearlong project in which the newspaper is partnering with local news outlets throughout South Carolina to report on corruption and abuses of power by public officials.

SLED has investigated more than 1,400 cases of government misconduct over the past decade, even without a dedicated white-collar crime unit. Those cases were handled not by specialists, but by agents who also had to juggle investigations into drug trafficking, violent crime, arsons and police-involved shootings.

SLED Chief Mark Keel asked lawmakers earlier this year for $159,000 to hire a forensic auditor, a number-crunching detective specially trained to identify patterns in illegal spending.

Without such a specialist on staff, SLED has often had to ask local communities to pay for auditors themselves. But doing that can slow a case to a crawl, Keel acknowledged.

"The Legislature's willingness to include this position will allow SLED to meet the demand to investigate financial and public corruption cases statewide," SLED spokesman Tommy Crosby wrote in a statement April 29. "The expertise of a forensic auditor will allow SLED to expand our investigative ability into these types of crimes. We thank the members of the General Assembly for answering the concerns of their constituents to investigate these crimes across the state and in considering our request."

The position didn't make it into the first draft of the budget, written by S.C. House lawmakers who were concerned the coronavirus' impact on the state economy wouldn't leave them with much money to spend.

State Sen. Shane Martin, who leads the subcommittee that decides SLED's budget, promised earlier this month he would fulfill the request. The Spartanburg Republican followed through last week.

"We also funded the public corruption investigator," Martin told colleagues on the Senate floor on April 27. "I know that's been a big topic, so we put that in the budget for SLED."

House budget writers, who have since learned they have much more money to spend than expected, hinted they plan to follow suit when they write the third draft of the budget this summer.