Sheriff chasing Phelps also chasing fool’s gold

Published 8:00 pm Saturday, February 14, 2009

All the real criminals in Richland County must be doubled over with laughter at reports that a sheriff in South Carolina is trying to build a case against Olympian Michael Phelps.

After all, most everybody else thought the last word on this sorry episode was issued last weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” when comedian Seth Meyers told parents how to handle their side of the role-model debate.

“If your kid says, ‘Michael Phelps smokes pot, why can’t I?’ ” Meyer quipped, “Say, ‘You can — right after you win 12 gold medals for your country.’ ”

Phelps has won 14 golds, actually, plus two bronze medals since making his debut as a 15-year-old in the 2000 Olympics, but you get the point. He’s 23 now, old enough to know better than to mess around with a bong at a party where almost everybody is armed with a cell-phone camera.

While there’s no condoning what Phelps did, most of us understand that if anybody has earned the right to blow off some steam, it’s him. Phelps has been in the pool nearly every day since age 7 and his accomplishments, beginning with a national age-group record at 10, attest to how much he sacrificed, beginning with any semblance of a normal childhood. Consider, too, that the current president acknowledged in his own memoir that he experimented with drugs, waved them off as youthful indulgences and had no problems getting on with his life.

Besides, it’s not as though Phelps hasn’t paid a steep price already. Beyond the public apology and ridicule the photograph spawned, Phelps has been suspended for three months by USA Swimming and lost at least one megabucks sponsor, Kellogg Co.

But that apparently wasn’t steep enough for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. His department reportedly has arrested eight people connected to the November party, near the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, where Phelps was photographed.

“It seems to me that Richland County has a host of its own crime problems much more serious than a kid featured in a photograph with a bong in his hand.” said attorney Joseph McCulloch, whose client was charged with possession of marijuana and questioned by investigators.

McCulloch is right, of course. The latest FBI statistics show violent-crime rates for Columbia — part of Richland County — were nearly three times higher than the national average and nearly twice as high as those for the state. For purposes of comparison, the only jurisdiction with a higher violent crime rate than South Carolina was Washington, D.C.

Whatever those numbers suggest about Lott’s job performance, he’s won election to four terms as a Democrat in a mostly red state, the last time in 2008. Lott has also earned a reputation as a savvy and progressive — if occasionally flamboyant — crime-fighter who rose from patrol officer to captain of the narcotics division and once drove around in a Porsche seized from a dealer.

After defeating the sheriff who fired him in a 1996 election, Lott never lost his knack for grabbing attention. He bought an armored personnel carrier from military surplus for use by the Richland County department, set up his own drug lab after deciding the State Law Enforcement Division’s lab was too slow processing requests, and once showed up in an evening gown, heels and makeup for a costume fundraiser at a local theater.

I wondered how Lott would feel if a photo of him in that outfit surfaced in News of the World, but he didn’t return a message left on his cell phone Thursday. That may be because Lott was busy testifying before Congress to rally support for the federally funded Head Start program to assist kids in poverty.

Then again, for a sheriff who’s never been shy about grabbing headlines from the day he took office, Lott has been surprisingly hard to reach since his office announced it was pursuing Phelps.

Even attorney Dick Harpootlian, a former county prosecutor who worked with Lott before going into private practice, acknowledges the investigation caught him by surprise. He’s representing a second person charged with possession of marijuana as a result of the party, and he isn’t buying Lott’s stance that nobody is above the law.

“I find it amazing,” Harpootlian said, “the justification is they don’t want to treat him any differently just because he is a celebrity, and he is being treated far differently than any other Joe Blow who might have smoked marijuana four or five months ago.”

If Lott genuinely believes that Phelps is a real danger to Richland County, somebody needs to sit him down and explain the meaning of prioritizing. And if he thinks the memories of all those medals dangling from Phelps’ neck is going to impress a few voters down the road, well, he’s chasing fool’s gold.