Phelps arrest backfiring on sheriff, local publisher says
Rachel Oswald
Published: Friday February 13, 2009

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Efforts by a South Carolina sheriff to pursue a criminal investigation into Olympic medalist Michael Phelps for smoking marijuana at a college party in November are backfiring, a local newspaper publisher says.

Since the news Wednesday that at least eight individuals have been arrested and questioned about the November party at a house near the University of South Carolina where Phelps was photographed smoking from a bong, public reaction has been less supportive of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Lott’s decision to pursue a criminal investigation is now drawing questioning of why he even bothered.

“I think the general consensus is that it is a waste of taxpayer money and resources if that’s what he’s focused on,” said Paul Blake, publisher of Columbia’s alternative weekly, the Columbia City Paper.

Blake said Lott’s investigation into Phelps could be part of a wider publicity effort to bring attention to himself.

“He is an elected official. I know he might have aspirations to run for governor but I think basically from the people I’m talking to that it’s backfiring,” Blake said, adding that it all comes down to perspective. “I think he just thinks he’s doing the right thing."

The sheriff’s department declined to comment to Raw Story directly on the investigation into Phelps but released a statement.

"If someone breaks the law in Richland County, we have an obligation as law enforcement to investigate and to bring charges,” the statement reads. “The Richland County Sheriff's Department is making an effort to determine if Mr. Phelps broke the law. If he did, he will be charged in the same manner as anyone else. The Sheriff has a responsibility to be fair, to enforce the law and to not turn a blind eye because someone is a celebrity. "

Attorneys for two of the people arrested told the Associated Press that efforts to build a case against Phelps on what could only be at the most a minor drug charge seem extreme compared to similar cases of drug use. This begs the question if rather than getting special treatment for his celebrity status, Phelps is being penalized by the sheriff because of it.

Two of the men arrested, who have been charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, told their attorneys that they were questioned almost entirely about Phelps. The men said the raids were reportedly carried out like a major drug bust with 12 deputies, guns drawn, bursting into the homes.

"The efforts that are being made here are unlike anything I've ever seen before," South Carolina defense attorney Jack Swerling told the AP. "I know Leon Lott, I know him to be an honorable guy. I've known him for 30 something years. But the efforts here are extraordinary on simple possession cases."

The public is now questioning why Lott is investing the man-hours in pursuing a case against Phelps when, according to the sheriff department’s own Web site, Richland County has approximately 55 unsolved homicides going back several decades.

A particularly snarky petition titled “Opposing Sheriff Leon Lott's Marijuana Prosecutions” is now circulating around the Internet. As of Friday morning, it had 194 signatures.

“There was no more harm done to the citizens of South Carolina by people smoking marijuana at a party at some point in the past then was done by ten of thousands of South Carolina citizens who were spending time drinking or smoking cigarettes that night. In fact, from a public health perspective much less harm was done,” reads the petition. “There was no general public outcry for justice in this case. The citizens of South Carolina largely know how silly these arrests are.”

According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States statistics, Richland County in 2007 witnessed 2,282 violent crimes including 23 homicides and 90 reported rapes.

According to, Columbia’s personal crime risk of 307 is much higher than the national average of 100. In 2006 alone, there were 1,277 personal crime incidents for every 100,000 residents.

Lott was handily reelected to a fourth term as sheriff of Richland County in 2008. He first joined the sheriff’s department in 1975 as a patrol officer and has been heavily involved in drug crime investigations throughout his career as a narcotics agent and then later as the Captain of Narcotics Division.

As part of the department’s tough-on-crime image, Lott oversaw the acquisition last year of an armored personnel carrier. The APC, which can travel at speeds of 30 miles per hour, was nicknamed “the Peacemaker” and purchased from army surplus. It comes with a turret-mounted .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun. The APC is used by the department’s Special Response Team, which responds to high-risk crimes.