Court clerk's eight-year career often garnered attention -- both good and bad

Elizabeth Smith
Elizabeth Smith

Elizabeth Smith's resignation Thursday ended her colorful -- and sometimes controversial -- eight-year tenure as Beaufort County's clerk of court.

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said she was "one of the most professional, hands-on clerks of court I have ever had the pleasure of working with," in a 2007 letter to the County Council.

Toal's letter recognized Smith's successful implementation of Beaufort County's computerized case management system for entering warrants. Smith also made records more accessible to the public and, in October, implemented a system that allows custodial parents to receive child-support payments through a reloadable debit card.

Smith estimated that the debit cards would save the county about $45,000 a year in postage, paper, manpower and other labor costs that go into disbursing the checks, which number more than 400 per day.

But Smith, a native of Florence, also was embroiled in controversies.

She was involved in a dispute with members of the Beaufort County Council in February 2008 over security improvements to the interior and exterior of the county courthouse. Smith accused the county's public works department of delaying crucial improvements to courthouse security.

"I've got a broken security system; I've got a death penalty case in the next six weeks; I'm in trouble," Smith said at the meeting. "I apologize, though I bear no fault, in bringing this untimely message to you all."

Council members, however, said they knew nothing of the improvements, except for work on the parking lot.

"We were presented with a parking lot security plan," said Councilman Von Harten of Burton. "Nobody up here even knew that it was anything more than that."

Smith left the meeting in tears.

Last year, Smith's bid to win the Republican nomination for clerk of court gained media attention when her opponent revealed Smith hired an employee facing charges in Broward County, Fla., for possession of cocaine and alprazolam, also known as Xanax, a prescription drug used to treat anxiety disorders and depression.

Smith said she was aware of the charges when she hired the employee.

"If this is a condemnable action in the eyes of the voters, let me be condemned," Smith said then. "And she's an American in America. Last I checked, you're innocent until proven guilty."

After successfully fending off two Republican challengers in the primary, Smith faced a former employee in November's general election.

LaSandra Young, 55, launched a write-in campaign to try to unseather former boss.

Young was fired as assistant clerk of court the week after Smith's June 10 Republican primary victory. Three other employees -- jury clerk Joni Fields, Lynn Bonge and Raymond Hamilton -- were either fired or asked to resign.Fields and Bonge helped Young gather petition signatures for Young's campaign to get on the ballot in November.

The women said Smith polarized the clerk's office, promoting employees who politically supported her and punishing those who did not.

Smith beat Young decidedly,earning 92 percent of the vote to earn her third consecutive term in office.

In addition to serving as county clerk, Smith retained her law license. She earned her law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1995 and was admitted to the state bar in November 1995, according to the S.C. Bar Association.

An art history major at Vanderbilt University, Smith started a business with then-best friend and former deputy clerk of court Janice Young earlier this year, sewing ornate vestmests and other religious garments for area clergy.

The pair's friendship came to an abrupt end in the last three months, a shift that resulted in Young leaving her job as deputy clerk on July 10. It's unclear why the friendship ended, or whether Young resigned or was fired.

Smith's husband, Beaufort County Drug Court Judge Manning Smith, said he wasn't sure what caused the friction between his wife and Young. Manning Smith said he considered Young to be family. But the women had a falling out "the likes of which (I'd) never seen," according to a statement he gave the sheriff's deputies last month.