A prosecution witness told a federal jury Wednesday how she removed information on receipts that would have shown that former Chester County Alex “Big A” Underwood and his chief deputy spent more than $5,000 in county public money to pay for them and their their wives to fly first class to a convention in Reno, Nevada.
“I whited it out and sent it (the receipt) on the county,” testified Hope Bradley, a top assistant in Underwood’s office who was in charge of various department functions including answering the sheriff’s emails, handling bills and scheduling trips.
Bradley said she knew it was not only against county policy to use county money to fly first class, it was also against policy to use public money to pay for spouses’ travel, but she complied with the wishes of department higher-ups.
It was the third day of a public corruption trial at the federal courthouse in downtown Columbia. Underwood, his former chief deputy Robert Sprouse and former Lt. Johnny Richardo Neal face numerous conspiracy charges alleging misuse of their public offices for private gain.
Under questioning by federal prosecutor William Miller, Bradley told the jury that in June 2017, she was processing a $5,627 request for payment for four first class airplane tickets to Reno for Underwood and his wife, Angel, and Sprouse, and his wife, Katherine.
“That is what the sheriff and Sprouse told me to do,” Bradley said, explaining that Sprouse asked her if there was a way she could send the invoice information on to the county treasurer’s office without the spouse’s names because payment for the wives’ probably wouldn’t be approved.
“I told him I could work on it and see if I could fix it,” testified Bradley.
Eventually, Bradley told the jury, she figured out she could use white-out to blot out the wives’ names and references to first class tickets on the section of the bill that was going to to be sent to the treasurer’s office for payment.
At that, prosecutors displayed on video screens visible to jurors and spectators the before and after versions of the censored document. The censored document had a large rectangular patch of white; the uncensored document had the crucial information about the wives’ names and first-class travel details.
“The sheriff asked to do first class because he needed more leg room,” Bradley testified.
In another document dealing with the Reno trip, Bradley testified, she inserted the names of two other sheriff’s deputies in place of the wives’ names.
Earlier Wednesday morning, Chester County Treasurer Thomas Darby testified that Sprouse eventually brought two checks by his office to pay for both their wives’ first class air travel to Reno with two checks for $1,311 each.
Those reimbursements came in March 2019, a day after a Charleston Post & Courier reporter, Tony Bartelme, emailed a Freedom of Information request to the sheriff’s department asking for information about the 2017 trip, according to exhibits shown to the jury Wednesday.
The reporter’s FOI request said that the newspaper was planning a story on the sheriff’s department and planned to report the two wives had flown to Reno at public expense with their husbands, according to the documents.
In a cross examination of Darby by Underwood attorney Stanley Myers, Darby told the jury that he couldn’t say whether the Reno airfare billing for the wives was illegal or not, but spending public money for first class travel and spouses’ air fare was not county policy.
“I just want to know if anyone has ever come to you and said anything was illegal?” asked Myers.
Darby replied, “That was not the conversation.”
In another cross examination of Darby, Sprouse attorney Micheal Laubshire asked that when Sprouse came by with the airfare reimbursements, “He didn’t try to lie and cover anything up, did he?”
Darby replied, “No, sir.”
“He never told you to lie?” Laubshire said.
“No, sir,” Darby said.
Prosecutor Miller asked Darby, “Are you good stewards of the people’s money?”
“That is right,” the treasurer replied.
Bradley said working in the sheriff’s department was pleasant. “Everybody was like family — most of the time,” she testified.