Well, I saw something I've never seen before at my Rotary Club, to the best of my memory (and fellow Rotarians, correct me if I'm wrong): Our main speaker got THREE standing ovations — before he started speaking, in the middle of his remarks, and when he finished. I've seen some war heroes and others get TWO before, but the club is generally fairly sparing with the standing Os, and the three today can be taken as a deliberate and spontaneous statement by the members of the state's largest Rotary.
The speaker was Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
And far from this being a generic, institutional, I'm-your-sheriff-and-here's-what-I-do-for-a-living sort of speech out of the can, the entire thing was a spirited, sometimes humorous, ultimately deadly serious rebuttal to the criticism that the Sheriff has received over the last three weeks over the Michael Phelps affair.
First the humorous — excuse the crude phone photo above. I didn't have my real camera with me. Fortunately, thestate.com videographer Andy Haworth was there, and he's going to give me a link once he gets what he has posted. Anyway, my crude shot above was taken after the sheriff had warmed up for his speech by a) donning a flak vest; b) saying "I've got my own damn' medals" and hanging them around his neck, then c) having quoted Newsweek as describing him as "blond and photogenic," putting on an Ellie Mae Clampett-style wig.
The sheriff then went on to explain that "I didn't have a choice" whether to investigate the Phelps photo that had been seen around the world, explaining that he didn't care about the picture itself per se, but he did care about what kids in Richland County saw when they looked at it. So he did what he saw as his duty, and carried the case as far as he reasonably could — without doing anything out of the ordinary — before closing it for lack of further evidence.
Then, in the spirit of late night television (where he has been the butt of a certain amount of jocularity), he offered his responses to the Top Ten criticisms he's heard in the last three weeks:
- It's "only marijuana," and everybody does it or has done it at some time. He singled me out at that point to say he doesn't normally read blogs, but he read what I wrote last week about someone close to me whose downward slide in life began with youthful dope smoking, and he said he had similar experiences in his life. "I've seen people die from the use of majijuana. You know, maybe that's why it's illegal." He mentioned a close friend in high school, a football hero, who he said is dead because of marijuana. "Don't give me that BS that it doesn't hurt anybody because it does; I've seen it."
- Marijuana "shouldn't be illegal." The sheriff explained that that wasn't his department — he enforces the law; he doesn't make it. Pointing to state Sen. Joel Lourie out in the audience, he proposed that those who would like the law changed to take it up with him and other lawmakers.
- His investigation was "a waste of taxpayer's money." He said a total of 16 man-hours were spent on the case out of his entire department for the three weeks, for a grand-total expenditure — based on the involved deputies' pay rates — of $322.48. He defended the modest outlay, saying "That's our job."
- That he was only pursuing the case "to make a name." Well, he said, "I have a name," and he's had it since his parents gave it to him 55 years ago, and he's satisfied with it. He explained the sequence of events this way: Three weeks ago, after the photo of Phelps with a bong created a worldwide sensation, a reporter asked him, "Sheriff, are you going to do anything about it?" He said he would investigate, and that was the LAST statement he made to any sort of media about the subject until his press conference closing the case a week ago. "I could have been on Leno" or any other of many media opportunities that were offered to him during the period, but which he turned down. In reply to an accusation that he was just trying to get his Warholian "15 minutes," he said, "I could have had 35 hours" of fame if he had wanted it. "When we were through with (the investigation) and I got through quail hunting," he had a press conference "and that was it."
- "I was running for re-election — Dadgummit," he thought he just got through doing that (which he did, having been re-elected in November).
- "I didn't have nothing better to do." Oh, yeah, the sheriff said — he is SO bored as sheriff. And here he got pretty passionate. Yeah, he said, he's got other things to do, and he's doing them. He referred in particular to the Denny Terrace attacks — the brutal beating death of Linda Derrick and the beating and stabbing of Carolyn Webb. The suspect, Elbert Wallace, is one the sheriff has described as a "crackhead," and who Solicitor Barney Giese said "really did terrorize a community for a long period of time." Mrs. Derrick's sister Susan Porth said "My precious sister’s life was taken so this man could get high." The sheriff said today, "That's why that lady's dead, because of drugs," making the point that the suspect didn't start smoking crack. His point in bringing this up was to say that he's doing his job on these more important cases, and that's what he has homicide investigators for. But he also has a narcotics unit, and it is also doing its job. And that unit did its job in the Phelps case. By the way, the sheriff noted, nobody got arrested in the case for being in the famous bong picture. Rather, "We arrested 8 people who were stupid enough to have drugs on them at the… time when we went to… talk with them." That's what they were charged with.
- "I'm running for governor." He thought that was pretty bizarre. He wondered what he'd do if he were elected governor — "I'd be like the dog that caught the car." Again, he pointed to Joel Lourie if you wanted to talk to a potential gubernatorial candidate (but as readers of The State and this blog know, Vincent Sheheen is running instead of either Joel or James Smith).
- "It was only a college dope party." Lott said cops had been to this house twice previously because of thefts associated with the fact that thieves knew there were drugs on the premises. "This was a drug house that was a menace to the neighborhood."
- Quoting a letter he received, "Michael Phelps is a true American hero, and you are a true American ass." He said it was from "another disgusted taxpayer" — in Michigan. The sheriff went on to repeat what he had said earlier about his national fan mail: "I don't care what a dope smoker in California thinks about me."
- Finally, "Why?" Why the investigation, that is. "How could I not? How could I just ignore it?" He said it was his job to take those medals from around the neck of the guy in the photo and investigate, and he did, and that was that, and "I can go to bed at night knowing I've done my job."
It was right after he finished with his top ten that the sheriff got his second standing ovation.
In response to a question, he went on to talk about the fact that "Mexico is in a war right now," with a lot of people getting killed, because of the U.S. market for drugs — that is to say, a market driven by demand from "Michael Phelps and college kids" and others in this country. "Every time we light up a joint here," we in this country are contributing to that violence.
Anyway, the support for the sheriff in that room was pretty solid. Good for Leon.