Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is known for his acquisitions of military gear through a program intended to transfer surplus military equipment to civilian law agencies. He’s gotten AR-16 rifles, a troop carrier and even helicopters.
But in the last year, Lott’s acquisitions of two Sherpa C-23B troop plane carriers that he traded to an Illinois company for a 2013 Cessna to replace the department’s aging Cessna have him walking through a legal and bureaucratic minefield. He and his department came under scrutiny and temporary sanctions from the Department of Defense, who alleged the Sherpa swap was illegal.
The Department of Defense military surplus program often comes in for criticism, especially since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., when the nation watched on television as heavily armed officers and armored vehicles patrolled the streets.
Some say the program has led to increased militarization of local law enforcement agencies. Since 1997, the Department of Defense has transferred more than $5 billion in military equipment to local agencies. President Obama, who reviewed the program, has allowed it to continue.
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But in this case, questions swirled around Lott’s trade of the Sherpa airplanes to Win Win Aviation of Illinois. At one point in the two-year controversy, government officials threatened to take away several million dollars worth of the military hardware Lott had gotten over the years and not let him continue to be part of the program.
Now, that threat is over and it looks like things will be cleared up in the near future, according to Lott and dozens of documents he furnished The State newspaper.
“This has all been a huge misunderstanding – nobody did anything improper,” Lott said on Friday. He has been in the program more than 10 years and has never been accused of anything improper before, he said.
Moreover, no one will take away any of the military equipment he has – equipment he and his department either have put to good use or have standing by in case of an emergency, Lott said.
On Friday, Lott showed a reporter copies of dozens of letters and emails over two years supporting his version of events.
The high points of the tale:
On Jan. 8, 2013, Lott’s department and others across the U.S. got an email from the Department of Defense saying Sherpa airplanes were available.
Sherpa C-23B airplanes are twin-engine affairs, with 20 seats. Known as versatile workhorses, they were extensively used in the Iraqi War from 2003 to 2011 to transport soldiers and cargo, on short in-country hops.
Within a few days of getting the email, Lott’s department told the Department of Defense it would like two Sherpas – one for parts, and one for use. Lott said he knew the S.C. National Guard and federal agencies in South Carolina would want to use the plane, too.
In late February 2013, the Sherpas arrived at downtown Columbia’s Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport. Lott’s department took possession.
In early March, 2013, Lott’s department got an inquiry from a private contractor asking if it could acquire the Sherpas. Lott agreed to discuss it, thinking this might be a way to raise money for a more useful plane than the Sherpas for his department and other local law agencies.
In June 2013, Lott agreed with Win Win Aviation, an Illinois military contractor, to exchange Lott’s two Sherpas for a 2013 six-seat Cessna 206. As part of the deal, Win Aviation agreed to upfit the Cessna with more than $500,000 high-tech surveillance equipment Lott can use in crime fighting.
Normally, Lott can’t sell or trade any of the military equipment he gets through the program. But under the contract he signed with the Department of Defense to get the Sherpas, there was no language restricting his use of the planes, he said.
Before finalizing the deal, Lott notified Department of Defense coordinator in South Carolina, Robin Holmes, of his plans with the Sherpas. Holmes raised no objection to Lott’s proposed deal, but later said that Lott’s letter explaining the deal wasn’t clearly worded, according to documents.
In early 2014, Department of Defense coordinators in South Carolina deemed the swap improper because, they said, the Sherpas had to stay with Lott’s department. Lott insisted the swap was legal.
Lott, under threat of having to return all his military surplus equipment, eventually agreed to ask Win Win for the Sherpas back.
But in February of this year, Win Win filed a lawsuit in federal court in Illinois against the sheriff’s department and the Department of Defense. The suit asked a federal judge to let it keep the planes.
Reached in Illinois, Win Win president Andri Wiese declined comment because of the ongoing legal action. But he said he was hopeful everything would be worked out soon.
Holmes, the Department of Defense coordinator in South Carolina, could not be reached for comment.
In the meantime, Lott had requested a Department of Defense criminal investigation in hopes it would clear him. On Thursday, his department received an email saying no criminal investigation is warranted.
Lott said the legal action should be settled soon. Win Win will keep the Sherpas and his department will keep the Cessna, he said. “Our nightmare will turn into a sweet dream,” he said.