Troopers sought political help to fight favortism

Audio files released Friday show state troopers sought political help from lawmakers more than a year ago in dealing with what they believed was favoritism at the highest ranks of the state Department of Public Safety.

They found friendly ears in at least two lawmakers — Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, and Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, vocal critics of the department dating back several years, the files show.

The audio files, dated December 2006, were in an internal-affairs file obtained by The State newspaper from the Department of Public Safety through the state Freedom of Information Act.

The internal-affairs investigation was opened after then-Sgt. J.R. Kerbs, who has since left the Highway Patrol, filed a complaint alleging retaliation against him by Patrol Commander Russell Roark for Kerbs having given another trooper a substandard grade on a performance evaluation.

In one of the audio files, dated Dec. 20, 2006, which Kerbs recorded himself and submitted with his complaint, Kerbs is talking to Lt. R.H. Rabon, who was then the acting commander for Troop 1, which includes Richland, Lexington and Kershaw counties.

“I talked to ... two of the legislators here in Richland County as well as one of the senators over there in Lexington,” Kerbs said in the audio file. “The two are members of the Black Caucus, and they want Roark’s head ... they can’t stand him.”

In the same audio file, Kerbs goes on to recount a conversation he said he had with Knotts about Public Safety Director James Schweitzer.

“Sen. Knotts says Schweitzer won’t be reconfirmed next year because of Roark,” Kerbs said. “He said it only takes one senator to hold up the confirmation ... he said he’s that senator ... he said he’s not going to make it through confirmation ...

“Leon Howard said the same thing ... he said if they send it to the House, the Black Caucus isn’t going to go along with it.”

When contacted Friday, Kerbs said he didn’t recall members of the Black Caucus saying they wanted “Roark’s head.”

“They wanted him replaced,” Kerbs said. “Did they use the term they wanted his head? I doubt it.”

Schweitzer declined comment through a spokesman. Efforts to reach Roark for comment were unsuccessful.

Gov. Mark Sanford forced the resignations of Schweitzer and Roark over a video in which a white trooper is seen using a racial slur against a fleeing black suspect during a 2004 Greenwood County traffic stop. Sanford said that Schweitzer and Roark were too lenient on the trooper and that he should have been fired.

State and federal authorities are investigating possible civil-rights violations stemming from incidents caught on videotape, including two in which troopers struck suspects fleeing on foot with their patrol vehicles. The S.C. Senate also is investigating.

Howard, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the favoritism Kerbs alleged in his case was just one of many issues lawmakers had with Roark, most notably unfair promotion practices within the Highway Patrol.

“We didn’t want Roark’s head,” he said. “We just wanted Roark to be held accountable.”

The problems with Roark date back to before Schweitzer was confirmed in May 2004, Knotts said. Knotts said he showed Schweitzer a January 2004 video of troopers harassing Lexington County narcotics agents while the agents were on duty.

Roark gave the troopers a written reprimand, Knotts said, and Schweitzer told Knotts the punishment was inadequate.

That prompted Knotts to reassure Black Caucus members that Schweitzer would get things in line, Knotts said.

Despite several warnings, Knotts said, Schweitzer wouldn’t “take charge of Roark” and make changes necessary to discipline the patrol.

“I told Schweitzer numerous times, ‘Jim, you need to take charge of that department,’• ” Knotts said.

That didn’t happen, Knotts said, pointing to subsequent dash cam videos, including a 2006 video of a white trooper repeatedly striking a black motorist and another of a white trooper repeatedly kicking a surrendering white truck driver in the head.

The trooper in the first incident was ordered to undergo counseling; the trooper seen kicking the truck driver resigned during an internal-affairs investigation.

“That guy, kicking that guy in the head after he’s stopped; have you seen that video?” Knotts said. “That’s uncalled for.”

Knotts said he expected more from Schweitzer.

“If anybody knows what a civil-rights violation is, it should be the former head of the FBI in Columbia,” Knotts said.