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Palmetto Citizens Against Sexual Assault (PCASA) Executive Director Charlene McGriff is defending herself against allegations made by Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood following a confrontational meeting in his office earlier this month.
In a conversation Thursday morning, Oct. 24, after The (Rock Hill) Herald broke news of the Oct. 10 meeting, McGriff said she has since filed a complaint against Underwood with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), though she hopes he can move past the fallout in the interest of Chester County victims.
PCASA is a non-profit organization that serves domestic and sexual abuse victims but specializes in helping sexually abused children in Lancaster, Chester and Fairfield counties. The agency offers specialized services ranging from forensic interviews and medical examinations to victim advocacy in 6th Circuit courts and therapy.
McGriff alleges that during the meeting, Underwood got so mad that she thought he was going to strike her.
In a copy of a letter from Underwood canceling his office’s Memorandum of Understanding with PCASA provided by McGriff, Underwood said McGriff acted inappropriately during the meeting, was impolite and disrespected him and his staff.
In a report published by The Herald, Underwood said McGriff also threw items off his desk before he told her to get out of his office.
McGriff said Underwood’s office scheduled the meeting for 11 a.m. Oct. 10, two hours after she left Underwood an exasperated but “stern” voice mail expressing frustration with his refusal to return repeated calls for meetings over the course of nearly a year.
She said PCASA had secured a grant that would provide $90,000 for the Chester County Sheriff’s Office to help hire a part-time investigator dedicated to sexual assault, victims’ services and training related to handling juvenile sexual assault victims.
McGriff said she needed to discuss grant requirements of the sheriff and get his signature.
Also known locally for her role as Lancaster County councilwoman and her service with the Lancaster NAACP chapter, and past chairwoman of Lancaster County school board, McGriff said what came next was something she’d never encountered in her 20 years as a victims’ advocate.
McGriff said when she walked into the room, it was occupied by Underwood and two deputies who later sat on both sides of her in front of Underwood’s desk.
“I walked into his office and shook his hand, and shook another deputy’s hand, and I said, ‘You’re a hard man to get in contact with,’” McGriff said.
“Before I could sit down good, he was pointing at me across his desk and saying ‘You will never call me and leave me another message like that on my phone again.’”
McGriff said Underwood referenced a statement of hers in the voice message saying she didn’t understand why she could meet with Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, Fairfield County Sheriff Herman Young and others, but not with him.
She said Underwood told her “he was not Faile or Young and that he didn’t have to meet with her.”
Her response, she said, enraged Underwood to the point that she though he was going to strike her.
“It must’ve been when I raised my hands and said, ‘I didn’t say you were Barry,’ because he came around his desk and came toward me, I got up and started backing up, his arms were swinging,” McGriff said. “When he was coming at me, he was coming at me like I killed his dog, with rage in his eyes.
“I was so mad, I thought he was going to hit me. When I got to the door, I turned around about six feet away from him and I said, ‘Sheriff, you’re a rude man,’ and I left,” she said. “A deputy came after me, and brought me ... I was so scared I left my purse, my cell phone, my keys, everything.”
McGriff said she believes Underwood invited deputies to the meeting to both intimidate her and to “show them how he was going to handle me.”
She said she would have never attended the meeting, or at least brought some of her own people along, if she’d known Underwood was going to react as he did.
McGriff also refuted Underwood’s allegations about her behavior, especially his allegation as reported by The Herald that she intentionally threw items off of his desk.
“I went in with the intent of sitting down and talking professionally,” McGriff said. “How would I look going into a sheriff’s office and knocking stuff off his desk? That would be breaking the law. In the sheriff’s office. Give me some credit.
“Anybody who knows me all these years know I come at everything I do professionally,” she said.
McGriff said soon after she left, Underwood faxed a letter to members of PCASA’s board of trustees canceling the Memorandum of Understanding.
McGriff said when she told them what happened, they stood behind her and supported her response.
Among those responses, McGriff said, was to report Underwood and his loss of control to SLED.
“People need to know what kind of sheriff they’ve got, so I also turned him into SLED,” McGriff said. “If he’s coming at me like that, what’s he doing to other people in his county?”
SLED did not immediately return a phone call requesting confirmation and information on the complaint.
McGriff said Underwood has since reached out again to PCASA in an effort to reestablish services, though she doubt’s he’ll sign after reading news reports about the confrontation.
But she hopes the two will move past their troubles, and said with PCASA’s ongoing Memorandums of Understanding with Chester, Fort Lawn and Great Falls, only victims in the rural areas of Chester County will be hurt by a loss of the grant.
“All I want is for him to do what he needs to do for victims,” McGriff said. “He needs to just settle down and realize he isn’t God, and as sheriff, you have a responsibility to your citizens who are victims.”
“If he doesn’t want to work with me, fine,” she said. “Just make sure that you work for the victims in Chester County.”
Underwood recalls the confrontation differently.
“She came to this office but before she got here she had left messages on the answering machine with my administrative assistant that were very nasty,” he said.
“She was also nasty when Hope (the administrative assistant) asked what she wanted to talk to the sheriff about.”
Underwood said his administrative assistant scheduled a meeting for McGriff to come to the office and meet with him and when she came in her words to him were, “You must be a figment of the imagination because you can’t be real, you don’t return calls!”
“She was loud and displayed unprofessional conduct,” the sheriff recalled about that initial meeting with McGriff. “She told me, ‘I’m a council member of Lancaster County and when I call Sheriff Faile and Sheriff Young, they call me back immediately, and that’s what I expect from you!’”
Underwood said he then advised McGriff of the difference between himself and the other sheriffs.
“I told her, ‘I’m not Sheriff Faile or Sheriff Young and you don’t need to call here and leave rude messages with my assistant,’ he said.
“She didn’t even acknowledge my comments, she slid my stuff to the side of my desk and threw down a three-ring binder while standing over my desk while I was seated.”
Underwood said when McGriff rearranged the items on his desk, he took control of the meeting.
“I told her, ‘Sit down!’ and that was the second time I had asked her to sit down,” he said.
“She sat down and said, ‘I don’t know what kind of sheriff you think you are, but when I call, you need to call me back.”
The sheriff said he then took an action that infuriated McGriff.
“That’s when I stood up, walked around her chair, opened my office door and told her to get out,” Underwood said.
“I told my officers who were in this meeting with us to help her get her things and escort her out of the building.”
Underwood said McGriff moved into the area outside his office where others were standing a nd made a “loud” comment.
“She yelled back, ‘You’re a nasty sheriff,’” he recalled. “I told her, ‘You’re nasty, too. Get out!’”
In his letter terminating his office’s agreement with PCASA, Underwood wrote, “Ms. McGriff’s unprofessional behavior does not support her pledge to encourage collaboration among law enforcement agencies, and is instead very discouraging and unacceptable.
“Without the ability to have and maintain a good working relationship, it is not in the best interest of this office to remain in this Memorandum of Understanding.”
Underwood received a letter from McGriff a week later, postmarked Oct. 17, in which she alleges she felt threatened by his “6-foot-4-inch-tall stature which befits his nickname, ‘Big A.”
“Your stature is intimidating in itself, but your loss of personal control in that meeting was especially frightening,” she wrote.
“No sooner than I had made my statement about you being difficult to reach, that you jumped from your desk, flung your arms in all directions, and ordered me to leave, saying that I had no right to leave you such a stern message and that you were not obliged to meet with me, and that you would never meet with me.”
McGriff alleges in her letter to Underwood that he invited her to his office “for the sole purpose of intimidating me and attacking me.”
“Given your uncontrolled rage toward a woman who questioned your performance of your duties as sheriff, it comes as no surprise that you are not interested in providing service to victims of assault.
“In my opinion, you are a violent man.”
Underwood said it is not his intention to continue a relationship with the Lancaster agency.
“The children and victims of Chester County will be served and protected,” he said. “PCASA, that’s just one agency of many.”
Editor’s note: Denyse Clark of the (Chester) News & Reporter contributed to this story. Contact Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151