As y'all know, I feel a certain kinship for the sheriff (whom we endorsed in the last election). We call each other "twin" because we were both born on the same day in the same year in South Carolina. Also, he has been named "Toughest Cop"
twice, and if there were such a thing as a "Toughest Editorial Geek" contest, y'all know I would have won it at least twice by now. (He's also won the Miss Vista Queen drag pageant, but there I can draw no parallels to myself. It seems we are not identical twins.)
As for the controversy in which he is currently engaged, I'm not as stirred up as a lot of folks one way or the other. I sort of go back and forth on it. I think the law should be enforced equitably — but I also wonder how many people who were not white and famous have been prosecuted when they weren't at the very least caught holding. I most emphatically do NOT agree with the folks who see this as evidence that the War on Drugs is stupid or useless or whatever. I think it's a good thing this stuff is illegal. But I also doubt that this particular case is really worth the resources devoted to it thus far.
Anyway, wherever you stand on all of this, I thought I'd provide this reminder that Leon has never been shy about going after people who break our drug laws. He's devoted a career to it, done it with a great deal of dash, panache and personal courage, and has often been controversial.
LEON LOTT: UP FROM 'MIAMI VICE'
Published on: 10/30/1996
By CLIF LeBLANC, Staff Writer
Illustration: PHOTO: color & bw
Editor's note: This is the second of two articles examining the candidates for Richland County sheriff.
Leon Lott lives to catch the bad guys. He revels in the nitty-gritty and the glitz of being a cop. He may like it a little too much.
The 43-year-old Democratic challenger in Tuesday's election for Richland County sheriff believes in working hard and getting his hands dirty.
The way he went about busting pushers and users earned him a reputation and awards. But his boss, the incumbent sheriff, said it cost Lott the job he loves.
The long hours he put in as a narcotics detective for nine years also claimed his marriage and hurt his relationships with his daughters.
Nearly four years after reaching the depths of his personal and professional life, Lott feels he is a better officer who has grown enough to become the forward-looking "sheriff for the 21st century."
Dirty Harry and Sonny Crockett were personas Lott once wore with relish during high-flying days when he drove seized Porsches, sported an 18-carat Rolex, worked choice undercover cases with federal agents in Florida and postured for cameras.
Now he blames the Hollywood image on the media, though his best friend admits Lott enjoyed playing the role to his advantage. Lott still wears the $2,650 watch.
Citizens or celluloid? Lott has been chief of the tiny St. Matthews Police Department for three years. That has helped him appreciate real-life role models.
"I see myself as a combination of Frank Powell, Chief Austin as far as PR, and Sheriff Wells as far
as being involved in investigations."
Powell is the former five-term sheriff of Richland County who hired Lott in 1973 and has come to epitomize, for Lott, the lawman unswayed by political influence.
Chief Charles P. Austin is known for his ability to sell the community policing philosophy that has brought him and the city of Columbia success.
Union County Sheriff Howard Wells won national recognition for his handling of the Susan Smith case.
But Lott's critics don't buy that he is anything but the hot-dog narc who fashioned himself after make-believe cops and tried to live by rules that work only on the screen.
"He actually thinks he's Don Johnson. He actually thinks this is 'Miami Vice,' " said GOP opponent Allen Sloan, refering to the freewheeling fictional narcotics officer from the TV police drama that ended in 1989.
"That still exists today," Sloan said of Lott. "All the rules apply, except to Leon."
Two law enforcement officials who worked years with Lott in Richland County share a similar concern.
"He has an ends-justify-the-means mentality," one said, requesting anonymity because he would have to collaborate with Lott if he wins the election. "That's frightening in any law enforcement officer and especially in the top person."
Lott says he is a college-educated professional who can breathe new life into a tradition-bound agency.
"I never considered myself a hot dog," Lott said, wearing a tie and chatting from an easy chair in his modest living room. "The Sonny Crockett thing … I think I fed off what the news media created. I turned it around and tried to use it to our advantage."
Lott's best friend, Jon Fins, said the brash label comes from people who don't know him.
"To me, Leon is a guy in sweats who works out real hard to stay in shape, grabs a sandwich at McDonald's and goes right back to work," said Fins, co-owner of an Assembly Street pawn shop where Lott bought his Rolex.
Fierce or fair? Lott's detractors say his zeal often overrides good judgment.
Just before Christmas 1987, for example, his aggresiveness got the best of him, said Jim Anders, then-5th Circuit solicitor and now a strong supporter of Sloan.
Anders produced a blistering order from a federal judge over the seizure of a new, black BMW convertible during a drug bust.
Judge Clyde Hamilton ordered the car returned to its owner and blasted the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI and then-Capt. Lott of the sheriff's office. The judge cited "many irregularities" and "questionable motivations" for taking the BMW.
"Captain Lott's testimony raised the possibility that he had sought forfeiture … for an improper purpose, specifically to serve as his private vehicle," the judge's ruling said. It appeared, Hamilton said, that Lott wanted to drive the care to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
Lott was scheduled to leave for coveted training at the prestigious academy in about the time the BMW was seized.
The car had only the remains of a marijuana joint, Anders said, adding he refused to seize the car because state law required a minimum of 10 pounds of pot before government could move to confiscate a vehicle used in the drug business.
"That's the kind of reckless behavior that I'm concerned about," Anders said. "It's less character than ability. A smart police officer doesn't get himself involved in cases like that."
Lott's explanation? "That's not pointing any finger at me. It's pointing fingers at the Richland County Sheriff's Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's office. They made the decisions to move forward. I didn't force them to do that."
But Lott initiated the seizure and pressured the young woman who owned the car to voluntarily turn it over for forfeiture.
Caught in middle? Lott's most publicized criticism as a narcotics agent occurred in 1991. A circuit court judge threatened him with contempt for changing agreements with drug suspects, for ignoring a court order to arrest a father- and-son drug-dealing team from Miami and especially for not adequately supervising drug peddlers who were out on bond so they could help police make cases.
Enrique and Fabian Valencia were busted at Owens Field in February 1990 with 11 pounds of cocaine. In exchange for reduced sentences laid out in written agreements, they pledged to help Lott lure bigger dealers into South Carolina.
Judge Carol Connor stung Lott for his actions, but didn't punish the pushers because they met their terms.
Anders said he doesn't remember the agreement and Sloan publicly backed Lott when the deal made news in March 1991.
Lott produced his records of the case, which show that Anders' chief narcotics prosecutor signed the agreement. A Feb. 19, 1991, memo from Lott to then-5th Circuit Solicitor Dick Harpootlian, who disavowed the deal after suceeding Anders, indicates that Sloan "had been advised of the situation."
Lott maintains he was caught in the middle between officials who made an agreement in writing and a new prosecutor and judge who took a different view after the fact.
"If I did violate it," Lott said of Connor's order. "It was with the approval of the sheriff."
Harpootlian was so concerned about Lott's judgment at the time that he announced he would review all his drug deals and recommended to Sloan that Lott be taken out of narcotics enforcement.
Sloan moved him to what Lott calls a do-nothing administrative position, where he stayed until he was fired in December 1992.
The demotion and dismissal was the bleakest time in Lott's life. His marriage fell apart during that time and he had to try to explain to his three daughters why he was out of the profession he loved.
It took Lott six months to land the chief's job with the seven-member St. Matthews department.
Harpootlian and Lott have made peace and the prosecutor-turned-defense-lawyer is backing Lott's campaign.
"I think Leon had a life-changing experience," Harpootlian said. "He lost his wife. He lost his job. He's somebody who realizes he's screwed up. He's matured. The guy's real talented. He gets up every morning wanting to be a cop."
Lott doesn't agree with all of that. "I don't think I made immature or bad decisions," he said.
But asked if he would OK the BMW and Valencia decisions if he were sheriff, Lott responded, "I would approve."
Lott conceded that he has changed and plans to continue his professional growth. "I guess age matures you. I feel like I'm a more rounded law enforcement officer now."
But controversy has followed Lott to St. Matthews.
Before the June primary, Lott ran afoul of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by employees whose agencies get money from Washington. Federal officials said Lott should not run for office because as chief of the Calhoun County town he administered nearly $59,000 in federal grants.
The dispute was settled this month after Lott agreed to drop the title of chief and sever any ties to supervision of the grants. But Lott remains chief in every other way after the town named him police "administrator."
Lott has built his campaign on the theme of higher standards. He said he will be fairer, he has the energy to be an administrator as well as a street cop, and he has fresher ideas.
He promises a network of 24-hour, full-service substations, a lower crime rate and all without a tax increase
The making of a cop. Lott fell into a career in law enforcement. More accurately, he threw himself into the job.
It was a boring summer evening just before his senior year at Aiken High School. Lott and some friends decided to egg cars from an overpass on I-20, which was under construction.
"I think the first car we egged stopped. We had egged the chief investigator for the sheriff's department," Lott recalled. "Me, being a (baseball) player … I had been the only one to hit the car."
The teen-agers tried to get away, but the detective pulled them over. He didn't rough them up or charge them, but he did behave professionally as he called their parents.
"It made such an impression on me … it just grabbed a hold of me," Lott said. The job appealed to his sense of rooting for the underdog (crime victims), to his interest in untangling things that are puzzling and to his restlessness with monotony.
The work also served as an outlet for his competitiveness.
Lott is media savvy and at ease before cameras, having appeared dozens of times in local newspapers and TV as well as nationally on "America's Most Wanted." But that self-assured image clashes with the quiet, reserved teen-ager Lott said he was.
He finds it odd that he's called a hot dog now when that was the kind of athlete he disliked in high school. "I thought actions spoke louder than words," Lott said.
The words have been loud and harsh in the Sloan-Lott race.
"There's been a lot of talk that this is about revenge," Lott said. "It's not. When he fired me … he gave me a chance to go out and show – prove to myself – that I could be more than just a narcotics officer. I got my revenge by being successful, by showing I could be a chief.
"I want to come back to Richland County, personally, so I can see my kids everyday and, professionally, because I can do a better job."