Ex-county building inspectors plead guilty to bribery, sentenced to 1 year

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Harold Cosby and Larry Fields

Two former Beaufort County buildings inspectors pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting bribes in exchange for building permits in 2012.

Harold Cosby, 67, and Larry Fields, 63, were each sentenced to one year in prison by Judge Brooks Goldsmith, according to the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

Cosby and Fields were arrested in May 2012 after a monthlong investigation by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, which included a sting operation, according to a Sheriff's Office report completed in June 2012.

The county inspectors received more than $200,000 in cash and goods over a 12-year period, according to a witness cited in the report. In return, Cosby and Fields expedited permits and issued final approvals without inspections, the witness said.

The Solicitor's Office recommended a sentence of two years in prison, and the defendants' attorneys requested probation, according to a Solicitor's Office news release.

"By accepting the bribes, the employees violated the trust of the community and compromised the integrity of the building permitting and inspection process," said Assistant Solicitor Francine Norz, who prosecuted the case. "We expect these essential functions of government to be performed professionally, by the book and with no preferential treatment."

County administrator Gary Kubic said he is disappointed the incident occurred and tarnished the public's trust in the county.

"My sense of the whole episode is, every day individuals have choices to make," Kubic said. "Some make good ones and some make bad ones."

During the sheriff's investigation in May 2012, a sting operation recorded a Lowcountry home builder, Chad McCue, giving Cosby $300 for a signed final approval on an inspection at a home on Loblolly Lane on Hilton Head Island that never occurred, according to the sheriff's report. Cosby and Fields were arrested the same week.

A team of building-codes officers returned to perform an inspection at the home that summer and eventually issued a proper permit, according to county building codes director Chuck Atkinson.

After the Sheriff's Office investigated the criminal allegations, the county attempted to identify properties that might have been involved in false inspections. The review entailed a page-by-page examination of the permits the office was reviewing and had recently completed. It searched for abnormalities like date discrepancies, irregular approvals or missing signatures.

The team went through permits in every district throughout the county and ultimately reviewed thousands of permit applications stored in its office, which date to 2005, Atkinson said. Records of permits before 2005 are kept in the county's archives, but Atkinson said because only one discrepancy was discovered in the department's active files, it did not seem prudent to continue the search in older files.

"Based on what we found, there was nothing compelling to say this had happened on other projects," other than the ones uncovered by the Sheriff's Office, Atkinson said. "We were looking for that, and it just wasn't there."

In the summer of 2012, the department reorganized and changed several of its policies. Atkinson said those changes, planned before Cosby and Fields were arrested, introduced additional peer reviews and entailed regularly assigning inspectors to new areas.

In addition, Atkinson said he now personally reviews and signs off on each file before it is closed.

"As far as building departments go, we're one of the best," Atkinson said. "We are a model department, and I stand by that."Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

Related content:

Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report on alleged bribery in Codes Enforcement

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