- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Yet another promising law enforcement career ended in South Carolina on Wednesday as the eighth of nine sheriffs charged or investigated for crimes in recent years was sentenced to prison.

Former Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was given two-and-a-half years for creating false police reports to help a friend who ran a credit-repair business.

Nine sheriffs in the state’s 46 counties have been charged or investigated since 2010. Seven have been convicted and one died as his investigation concluded. The ninth is awaiting trial.

Like most of those before him, Johnson was contrite during his sentencing hearing. For five minutes, with his voice breaking at times, he apologized to his family and to the community, admitting he broke the laws he swore to uphold during a 17-year career including four years as sheriff of the poor, rural county between Charleston and Florence.

“Knowing that I failed so many people is heartbreaking,” Johnson said.

The 30-month sentence was at the bottom of the federal guidelines for the 39-year-old former sheriff. Lester Woods, 49, the man for whom he created the false reports, was sentenced to 33 months in prison. Both men were convicted of fraud last September after a trial.

Credit-reporting agency Equifax discovered the scheme when an Atlanta man using Woods’ Columbia-based business submitted a police report from Williamsburg County on identity fraud.

By the time federal agents finished combing through the sheriff’s office computers, they found 245 false-identity-theft reports from a county of about 33,000 people. Computer records show all the reports were created by Johnson after hours. He put other deputies’ names on them to try and cover his tracks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday said.

Prosecutors still haven’t figured out what Woods gave Johnson for the false reports. Johnson’s lawyer Debbie Barbier said it was obvious from Johnson’s lifestyle that he wasn’t living extravagantly off the fraud, but was trying to help a friend and business partner.

Holliday called it a novel scheme. Johnson’s family said he just got caught up in helping people and didn’t think he was harming anyone - a theme that also arose in legal cases involving some of the other South Carolina sheriffs.

Three of the sheriffs improperly used inmate labor; one kept a friend’s restaurant employees from being entered into a federal database after they were arrested for being in the country illegally; one slapped a suspect after a long police chase; one has had his estate sued to pay back money improperly taken from county accounts; one tipped off drug dealers; and one is awaiting trial for leaving the scene of an off-duty car wreck and driving under the influence.

Johnson is only the third sheriff to face prison time. Of the other two, one is awaiting sentencing and one is awaiting trial.

Johnson and Woods also were both ordered to pay nearly $16,000 in restitution to people who paid to have their credit fixed and will serve three years of probation. They were allowed to remain free until federal prison officials order them to report.

Federal authorities have pursued charges against three of the sheriffs, getting prison time for two. A third awaits his fate.

“Federal prosecutors are some of the few people who can hold sheriffs accountable,” Holliday said.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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