Ex-court clerk's transfer of funds raise official eyebrows

Manning Smith, right, husband of former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, center, waits with his wife at her arraignment hearing in a Lancaster County courtroom in late August.
Manning Smith, right, husband of former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, center, waits with his wife at her arraignment hearing in a Lancaster County courtroom in late August.

Law enforcement authorities are awaiting results of an investigation into transfers of money from former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith's office to the county Drug Court, which was run by her husband, Manning Smith.

The investigation is aimed at determining the amount of money that was transferred, when transfers occurred and the propriety of moving the money.

Several sources, including clerks in other counties, said the kind of money that was transferred is intended to help clerks' offices handle child support cases and should not be used for other purposes. A state official said his office discouraged Elizabeth Smith more than a year ago from diverting the child support money to the Drug Court when she called to ask whether it would be appropriate.

Drug courts don't typically handle matters related to child support; that's the role of family courts. Drug courts, which exist in several counties in South Carolina, help non-violent drug offenders enter rehabilitation programs as an alternative to going to prison.

The transfers are being investigated by the state Ethics Commission and federal authorities, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said during Elizabeth Smith's arraignment on Aug. 25. Stone said at the time he had asked federal agents to join the investigation because part of the money transferred to the Drug Court came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A forensic audit of accounts in the clerk's office also is under way, ordered by Beaufort County officials.

Neither of the Smiths is still in office. Elizabeth Smith, who resigned as clerk July 30, is charged with embezzlement and misconduct in office. She has pleaded not guilty to taking $23,500 from the clerk's office and using it to buy insurance policies for relatives and to make payments on a vacation home on Pawleys Island.

Eleven days after Elizabeth Smith was charged, Manning Smith was removed as judge of the Drug Court by the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal. Toal's order did not disclose the reasons for removing him.

Telephone calls to Elizabeth and Manning Smith seeking details about the transfers were not returned. Elizabeth Smith's attorney, Mike Macloskie of Beaufort, declined to comment Friday. Elizabeth Smith's trial date has not been set.

The money Elizabeth Smith is accused of using for the insurance policies and beach house payments came from her office's "bondsmen's account" -- an account containing fees paid by bond companies that allows them to do business in the county. The money sent to the Drug Court came another fund, called the "IV-D" account, so named because the money is provided to states under Title IV of the Social Security Act. In South Carolina, IV-D money goes to the Department of Social Services, which disburses it to the state's 46 clerks of court. The money covers 66 percent of the expenses related to enforcing child support. Beaufort County currently has 4,010 such cases, according to DSS.

The money should be used by clerks of court only for costs related to child support cases, said Larry McKeown, director of Child Support Enforcement, a branch of DSS. McKeown said Elizabeth Smith queried his office more than a year ago about sending her IV-D money to the Drug Court.

She "wondered if it could be used in some way in that court and we didn't see how it could be used," McKeown said. "She explained the drug court would work with non-custodial parents to help them pay back child support and reduce recidivism."

Under state law, if a clerk's office doesn't spend all of its IV-D money in a year, the remainder goes into the county's general fund. It could not be immediately determined whether the Beaufort County clerk's office ever had left over IV-D money that reverted to the county. The Drug Court, for its part, didn't always get the money Manning Smith said it needed. Funding is currently provided by Beaufort County, the Town of Hilton Head Island and the federal government. But the city of Beaufort, which stopped contributing to Drug Court in 2004, rejected the judge's request for money again this year.

Two clerks in counties that also have Drug Courts -- Julie Armstrong in Charleston County and Marcus Kitchens in Spartanburg County -- both said that they don't think IV-D money could be applied to their drug courts.

"It's my interpretation of the rules and laws governing IV-D money that it can only be used for Family Court and the collection of child support," Kitchens said.

"I can think of no scenario (where a clerk could use IV-D money in drug court)," Armstrong said.

Solicitor Duffie Stone, whose office took over supervision of the Drug Court after Judge Smith's departure, says the court won't be using IV-D money in the future.

"I'm not going to use it because I don't think that's the purpose of it," Stone said. "I'm not saying it's illegal but I just don't think it's proper."

Carol Ruff, who was appointed by Stone and the circuit's judges to replace Manning Smith as drug court judge, declined to comment.