RCSD suspended from military surplus program

Published: Aug. 20, 2015 at 8:02 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 21, 2015 at 8:48 PM EDT
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RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) - The Richland County Sheriff's Department is suspended from a federal military surplus program after Sheriff Leon Lott traded two airplanes that were not his to trade, according to federal court documents.

Now, the department is at risk of losing millions of dollars of equipment all because of those two planes. The Defense Logistics Agency is part of the U.S. Department of Defense, and an office with that agency runs the 1033 program that lends out surplus military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.

The trade

The C-23 Sherpa is an aircraft capable of higher altitudes and longer distances than helicopters. It's a plane primarily used to transport troops, but also an aircraft that the Richland County Sheriff's Department was, at one point, interested in. It's also a plane that legal expert Dr. Greg Adams says has landed Richland County and Lott in hot water with the federal government.

Mobile users, tap here to see photos of the Sherpa and other Richland County surplus items.

"Very serious trouble, which could make a huge difference in the budget of the Richland County Sheriff's Department," said Adams, who is a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Court documents say, back in June 2013, the Department of Defense provided two Sherpas to Richland County as part of the federal government's 1033 program, a program that transfers excess military equipment like guns, armored vehicles, and aircraft to law enforcement agencies.

A court filing submitted by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois says, just six days after getting the planes, Lott made an "Exchange and Use Agreement" with Win Win Aviation, a private aviation company west of Chicago, to swap the two Sherpas, and eventually their titles, for one Cessna Stationair. The contract says the Cessna is an aircraft "better suited for most operations conducted by the Department than the Sherpas, including drug surveillance and interdiction."

"Unless you have a lot of experience in that area with those kinds of transactions, it's difficult to foresee what can go wrong," Adams said.

The trade did go wrong.

The U.S. government says it wasn't aware of the swap until roughly a year and a half later in January 2015. Court filings say the Federal Aviation Administration notified the feds of the possible misuse. In those documents, the government contends the two Sherpa aircraft are still U.S. government property and have always been U.S. government property, adding that Lott violated a "Memorandum of Agreement" by "improperly" trading the planes to a private company.

"It's like if your daddy lets you borrow his pick-up truck, and you took it down to Honest John's used car lot and traded it for a fancy convertible, because that'd be more fun to drive. Daddy's not going to be very happy with that, and that is what the situation is right here," Adams said.

In fact, the first page of the memorandum submitted as evidence by the U.S. Attorney reads, "Property will not be obtained for the purpose of sale, lease, rent, exchange {or} barter."

At the request of the federal government, the Richland County Sheriff's Department e-mailed the private company demanding the planes be returned to Columbia.

"Failure to comply with this request will result in the de-registration of these aircrafts," an attorney for the Sheriff's Department wrote in an e-mail this past February to Win Win Aviation.

But Win Win fought back with a lawsuit.

"This is the sort of case where the facts are clear, the law is clear, and the parties, I'm sure, will work out a settlement that's to everyone's advantage," Adams said.

In the suit, Win Win says it spent more than $1 million on modifications and upgrades on the two Sherpa planes after trading the Cessna to Lott in the seemingly legitimate agreement. Win Win, which contracts out planes to members of the public and branches of the military, says without the Sherpas it'll have to cancel agreements with clients. Win Win says if the government takes back the planes, it'll cause "irreparable harm" to the company's business operations.

"Win Win is also saying that Sheriff Lott told Win Win that he had already gotten approval from the government for this transaction. The government disputes that," Adams said.

For now, Richland County and Lott can't get any more rifles, armored vehicles, or airplanes from the federal government because the Richland County Sheriff's Department has been suspended from the government program that gives them the excess military equipment.

Currently, the federal government's Law Enforcement Support Office is reviewing whether the Sheriff's Department should be removed from suspension or be terminated from the program altogether. If Richland County is terminated from the program, the planes would only be one of their worries, because they'd have to give back everything they've ever received as part of the program, including guns, armored vehicles, and a helicopter.

The latest court filings indicate a settlement is in the works.

Lott says he couldn't do an interview, however, he sent a statement.

It is not appropriate for me to publicly discuss this issue in that it is still in litigation and we are waiting for a judge to sign off on the negotiated agreement, which we expect in the very near future. I can say though that at no time did the Richland County Sheriff's Department do anything illegal or improper. All equipment obtained by RCSD through the 1033 program remains in our possession and is used for the safety and security of Richland County citizens and our law enforcement partners. We remain a big supporter of the 1033 program and are very grateful for the equipment we have obtained over the years. We will continue to participate in the 1033 program for the benefit of our citizens and deputies.

Lott disputes the federal government's claim that he traded the planes only "six days" after getting them, adding the planes were traded after receiving them in February 2013 – four months earlier than court documents suggest.

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