Complaints about ex-Columbia police chief revealed years later. Did city investigate?

“If you run with dogs, sometimes you get fleas”: Former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott appears at his bond hearing for drug charges.

A warrant for a fugitive led officials to the home of former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott. Scott was later arrested after a small quantity of what appeared to be drugs were found in his bedroom.
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A warrant for a fugitive led officials to the home of former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott. Scott was later arrested after a small quantity of what appeared to be drugs were found in his bedroom.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was blamed for Randy Scott’s sudden resignation as Columbia’s police chief six years ago.

But months before the city’s top cop tearfully turned in his badge, complaints about his performance were being made to city officials. Documents released after a nearly five-year legal battle show Scott’s departure came amid accusations of sexual misconduct and other unprofessional behavior.

While Scott walked away on his own terms, the city fought for years and spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep those documents from the public, citing Scott’s privacy. Scott, meanwhile, immediately went to work again in local law enforcement.

At issue in the legal fight over the Scott complaints was whether the city investigated serious misconduct allegations against one of its most powerful employees. If the complaints were true, Scott was allowed to leave without discipline. Or if they were false, the city could have cleared his name in the public record.

“If the complaints against Scott allege that he violated the law or used his authority to perform activities which constitute ‘conduct unbecoming’ an officer, the public has a right to know why the Department failed to investigate the allegations or discipline Scott,” Richland County Circuit Court Judge Alison Lee wrote in a 2014 ruling that ordered the city to make the complaints public.

The city fought Lee’s ruling, including seeking an appeal to the state Supreme Court, before ultimately being forced to release the public records after a 4.5-year court battle.

Scott was accused of behaviors that included having sexual relationships with employees and slacking in attendance and performance at work.

The complaints themselves, documented in emails to city officials and in a private investigator’s report, do not prove whether any of those allegations are true or false.

Efforts by The State to reach Scott recently were unsuccessful.

City manager Teresa Wilson told The State newspaper both in 2013 and in 2019 that she looked into the allegations against Scott. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin backed Wilson.

The city manager “moved to address all the personnel matters related to Randy. … They were reviewed. They were investigated,” Benjamin said. “I know that Chief Scott resigned in the midst of the investigation, and that put an end to it.”

Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott enters a press conference to announce his resignation Monday. Scott suffered from PTSD after a deputy he hired while he worked at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department was killed in 2005. Jeff Blake jblake@thestate.com

It’s unclear, then, why the city said there is no documentation of those complaints being investigated.

When petitioned in 2013, the city insisted it had no documents relating to a Scott investigation. It stuck with that point in court, later arguing that the complaints were not submitted through the proper channels to warrant an internal affairs investigation.

More recently, though, Benjamin told The State that there may possibly be records of an investigation but that they never would have been made public if they existed.

“My understanding is there was an investigation, and there may even be documents,” Benjamin said. “As a personnel issue, those documents are not in the public domain.”

Wilson refused recent requests to give an explanation or an interview to The State regarding the Scott complaints and internal investigation.

In an emailed statement, city spokeswoman Leshia Utsey said:

“Per the City’s Legal Department, the City of Columbia has no comment on the details of the closed personnel and litigation matters. The personnel matter was handled appropriately and swiftly. The litigation matter was handled in normal course by the judicial system.

“As Ms. Wilson discussed with you on last week, she was hired as the City Manager in January 2013. Any complaints regarding Randy Scott that she was made aware of at that time or thereafter were addressed expeditiously and appropriately. The complaints were reviewed and a thorough investigatory process began. By May of 2013, Randy Scott’s employment with the City of Columbia ended.”

Utsey did not respond to follow-up questions sent in an email.

Teresa Wilson, Columbia City Manager. 3/5/19 Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

Scott showed ‘great promise’

Scott was hired as Columbia’s interim police chief in October 2010, and the interim title was removed in January 2011.

He previously worked for 16 years at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where he rose to become Sheriff Leon Lott’s right-hand deputy.

Scott was praised for restructuring the troubled police department and closing a revolving door of chiefs who came and went for several years before him. He became a high-profile figure in the Columbia community and earned the Strom Thurmond Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2012.

The police chief’s reputation took a turn, though, when his department botched a search for a prominent Columbia lobbyist, Tom Sponseller, who died of suicide in 2012. Scott was blamed for mismanagement in the search for Sponseller’s body, and two high-ranking officers were fired.

But it was an event that happened years before Scott joined the Columbia police force that he ultimately cited as his reason for resigning.

In 2005, Richland County sheriff’s deputy Keith Cannon, whom Scott had hired, was killed in a high-speed chase. Scott later said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder, in part, from seeing the young officer dead in the cruiser after the crash.

“You shouldn’t hire someone, look in a car and see them deceased,” Scott said in 2013 when he explained his decision to step down as police chief. “So, they call it PTSD. You can call it stress. But I have to call it what it is, and that’s something that was tearing me apart for a very long time.”

At that time, Wilson told reporters that Scott’s diagnosis of PTSD fell in line with conversations they had had concerning workplace issues she was aware of involving Scott. With his resignation, the inquiry into his professional conduct had ended, Wilson said at the time.

“I personally held out great promise for Chief Scott’s tenure at the city. I was looking forward to his leadership,” Benjamin recently told The State. “I’m disappointed in how things worked out. I’ve been assured by our staff that the allegations, the complaints were reviewed and there was a thorough investigation conducted that culminated in his resignation.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, left, and Columbia-Richland Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, middle, escort out Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott after Scott announced his resignation Monday. Scott suffered from PTSD after a deputy he hired while he worked at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department was killed in 2005. Jeff Blake jblake@thestate.com

Records of public interest

Several of the misconduct allegations against Scott officially came to light in late 2017 thanks to a lawsuit by local resident George Glassmeyer, a retired lawyer who filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city in April 2013 seeking documents relating to complaints filed against Scott and any investigations of him.

His document request was filed two days after Scott suddenly took a leave of absence in April 2013. Scott resigned a few weeks later, on May 1.

In response to Glassmeyer’s request for complaints, the city said that information did “not qualify as public documents relating to the performance of public officials.” In response to the request for investigation documents, the city said “there are no documents.”

Glassmeyer sued the city in July 2013 in an effort to get the complaints filed against Scott.

In its legal defense, the city argued that revealing the complaints would be an invasion of Scott’s privacy. It also argued that an investigation of the complaints was not warranted because they were not submitted directly to the police department’s internal affairs unit. Rather, the complaints were submitted directly to the highest authorities in city government: Wilson and City Council members.

“There can be no ‘public interest’ in determining why a departmental investigation never requested was not performed,” the city wrote in one legal filing, dated July 29, 2014.

The city also argued that “compelling public disclosure of anonymous, unsubstantiated complaints would allow unscrupulous parties the opportunity to libel and impugn public employees without any fear of recourse. Clearly, sending an anonymous complaint concerning alleged conduct of a public servant does not make that complaint a matter of legitimate public interest or inquiry,” according to a legal filing Oct. 17, 2013.

Glassmeyer, though, insisted the complaints were highly relevant to the public interest because not only did they concern the actions of a public official, but they brought into question whether the city followed its own policy of investigating complaints against officials.

“It is without question that the public has a right to know why the City’s own Policies and Directives were not followed when they admittedly received allegations of wrongdoing and complaints against former Police Chief Scott,” Glassmeyer wrote in an Oct. 13, 2013, filing with the court.

The court agreed with Glassmeyer.

The city was forced to give up the complaints, including a trail of emails and a private detective’s report alleging apparent exploits between Scott and a married woman.

A year after Glassmeyer received the Scott complaints, he shared the documents with The State newspaper. He waited to bring them to the newspaper while he continued to press the court to force the city to pay his legal costs, he said.

The city ultimately was ordered to pay those costs, forcing taxpayers to send him a check for $44,402.

The city did not respond to multiple requests from The State for information on how much it spent defending Glassmeyer’s lawsuit.

The city hired the Nickles Law Firm to defend the case.

Whatever amount the city spent, Glassmeyer said the same outcome could have been reached at no cost to taxpayers if the city had only complied with the Freedom of Information Act from the beginning.

The city was willing to “waste” taxpayer money “to buy five years of time to not give me something that multiple courts have said I should have had within 15 working days at nominal or no cost,” Glassmeyer told The State. “They’re willing to waste taxpayer dollars to buy time to violate the law.”

A continued cloud over Scott’s character

A cloud of rumors and accusations has hung over Scott for years, during and since his law enforcement career.

The information revealed in the complaints against Scott was consistent with many of the rumors Glassmeyer had heard around the time of Scott’s resignation, Glassmeyer said. And some of the complaints echoed claims that were made in other, unrelated lawsuits filed against the city and Scott in recent years.

A former police department employee filed a lawsuit a year after Scott’s resignation, alleging Scott had a romantic relationship with her while they both worked at the department. In that 2014 lawsuit, the former employee claimed that during their 1.5-year relationship, Scott had been controlling and threatening and had placed a city-owned GPS tracking device on her personal vehicle. The lawsuit was dismissed in September 2015 for failure to prosecute.

Another lawsuit, filed in 2013 by former police employee Isa Greene, alleged a culture of harassment and hostility in the police department before and during Scott’s tenure. Greene was one of the officers fired after the Sponseller case. A federal court dismissed Greene’s lawsuit.

After his resignation, Scott walked from the arms of the Columbia Police Department almost immediately back to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where he had previously worked for 16 years, including as chief deputy.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott addresses the media about the previous night’s arrest of former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott July 18, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. Scott was charged with possession of methamphetamine after members of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department Fugitive Task Force and U.S. Marshals tracked a fugitive to his residence. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was not informed by city officials of the complaints that had been levied against his new investigator, Lott said.

“Nobody officially notified me of anything (about) issues with him and his employment at the city. ... Nothing was ever told to me about that,” Lott said. “I don’t engage in rumors and so forth. I go by what’s the truth and what’s proven. ... There was nothing presented to me concerning the rumors or allegations you have.”

Lott said he re-hired Scott because he “saw someone that’s life was in crisis and felt like I owed him the opportunity to try to resurrect his career.”

Asked whether prior knowledge of the complaints — and the outcome of an investigation into them — might have affected his decision to re-hire Scott, Lott said, “It possibly could have. I go by facts. An allegation is just what it is, an allegation. I would look at what facts are, what’s proven.”

Lott said he had no knowledge of similar complaints being made about Scott during his time at the sheriff’s department.

Scott left the sheriff’s department once more in 2016, this time because of medical issues, the department told The State at the time.

Two years later, Scott was arrested by Richland County sheriff’s deputies after a search for a fugitive led investigators to Scott’s home.

He was charged with one count of drug possession and two counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent related to not returning his service guns to the city and the sheriff’s department.

At the time of Scott’s arrest, Lott expressed frustration and disappointment in Scott’s apparent involvement in drug activities.

Scott’s charges are still pending. He is being legally represented by local attorney and state Rep. Todd Rutherford. Rutherford declined to comment on Scott’s behalf.

Randy Scott talks with his attorneys, Bakari Sellers and Pete Strom, during a bond hearing at Alvin.S. Glenn Detention Center. Scott was charged after finding what appears to be drugs in his home. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism. She’s probably skipping happy hour to go to a County Council meeting.