In a profession licensed by the state, one that depends on trust, can customers trust the state of South Carolina to keep them safe? 7 News started asking that question after an Upstate realtor was accused of being a serial killer in 2016.
That realtor, Todd Kohlhepp, was a registered sex offender after a rape conviction in Arizona.
In fact, long before the public knew about Todd Kohlhepp, accused serial killer, he was well-known as the broker in charge at TKA.
He was licensed through the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“I was fearful that he had actually used his license to harm people,” said Greenville realtor David Crigler.
Crigler is chairman of the South Carolina Real Estate Commission, which oversees real estate licensing. His comments to 7 News were his personal opinions and not on behalf of the board.
“Who are you really in front of if you don’t know them personally?” Crigler said.
In Kohlhepps’ case, the state could have learned a lot about his sex offender past, but LLR never checked.
He was placed on the sex offender registry in 1987 after his conviction in Arizona. When he applied for his SC Realtor license he even checked “yes” in the portion of the application that asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime.
Still, he was given a license in 2008.
So, 7News used the freedom of information act to get a complete list of all licensed realtors in the state and compared those names to those on the sex offender reigistry.
Several names turned up.
For example, one North Charleston realtor was granted a license after his conviction in a Navy court martial. He was convicted of rubbing his private parts on a young girl.
He was sentenced to the brig, got a bad-conduct discharge and, in 2014, the state of South Carolina still gave him a real estate license.
Like other sex offenders identified by 7News, this applicant simply lied on his state application. When asked if he’d ever been convicted of a crime, he checked “no”.
The state never checked to see if it was true.
SC LLR spokesperson Lesia Kudelka clarified the agency’s position by email.
“There is no legal requirement to check the registry. However, if an applicant has a yes answer on his or her application, or if information comes to the attention of the board, the registry may be checked,” Kudelka wrote.
But in 2014, a similar 7News investigation got a different response.
That investigation examined state licensees, through the same agency, who were plumbers and chiropractors.
7 News looked at those licenses because they allowed access to a person’s home or business.
The list of licensees contained several sex offenders.
That year, Kudelka told 7News the state would begin using the free, online registry going forward.
They did not.
After the Kohlhepp arrest, some realtor have taken matters into their own hands.
Nick Carlson, vice president of Greenville-based Wilson Associates voluntarily checked the backgrounds of his entire staff.
“The old way of doing things where you would check yes or no on a form and explain why are done with,” Carlson said.
Under current law, new applicants for real estate licenses are required to have a background check, but anyone who got a license before 2014 would be grandfathered in.
The state legislature is considering changes to the law that would require checks for all licensees when they renew their license. Those bills are still in committee and one sponsor said they are working out the practical issues on implementation.
“I say why wait? If you’re a company and you’ve got a lot of employees and a lot of realtors there go ahead and do it,” Carlson said.
He said all of his employees supported his company’s decision, in part, to protect their own safety.
“It’s still an honorable profession. We are still here to help people. That’s what we do. We help people,” Crigler said.