County's Drug Court operated with little oversight, officials say

Beaufort County's Drug Court has operated for years with little outside oversight, according to the 14th Circuit solicitor, who added he had so little faith in the way the program was run, he seldom referred cases there.

Duffie Stone said it appears that Judge Manning Smith ran all aspects of the court until he was removed from office last month by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal for undisclosed reasons.

Smith is the husband of former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, who has been charged with embezzling $23,500 from two public accounts for personal use. Neither Smith has been charged with mishandling money in the Drug Court.

Rather than being run by the county itself or by the Solicitor's Office -- as is the case with similar programs across the state -- Beaufort County's Drug Court was run at the sole discretion of Manning Smith, according to Stone.

"That was the situation when I got here, which was a little unique and unusual," Stone said. "In nearly every circuit I can think of, the program operated under the solicitor's office."

Manning Smith could not be reached for comment.

He became Drug Court judge in 2001, a year after former 14th Circuit Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III created the program across the five-county circuit in 2000. Beaufort County's Drug Court is the only of those still operating.

The court diverts nonviolent offenders into rehabilitation programs as an alternative to prison to try to stem their substance abuse.

Beginning in 2002, Smith appeared before local government bodies, asking them to help fund the program. Beaufort County has contributed $47,500 a year since 2005, but never has had any authority over the program or its budget, said Bryan Hill, deputy county administrator.

"It wasn't a county-owned program," Hill said. "None of those employees were on my payroll. It wasn't answerable to Beaufort County."

County officials say they will not release this year's funding until investigations of the clerk's office and the Drug Court are complete.

The program also received annual contributions from the town of Hilton Head Island, which contributed $48,500 this fiscal year.

Stone said the Drug Court appears to have had two paid employees: Manning Smith, who earned $60,000 last year, and a director, who earned $42,000. Smith started as a volunteer, and Stone said it's not clear when he began receiving a salary.

In 2008, Smith's court heard only two cases of the 2,246 warrants processed in county General Sessions court, according to clerk's office records.

Stone said more cases could have been handled by the Drug Court last year but he didn't send them there because of a lack of "transparency and accountability" he felt plagued the program.

"I really haven't used that court in the last 18 months because of a number of questions I had about the execution of our program," Stone said.

Stone said one of his concerns was that Smith claimed that less than 5 percent of its graduates had been re-arrested but could not explain how they arrived at that number.

The program now has 14 participants, Stone said.

Stone said he plans to use the program more now that it's under new direction. Stone and the circuit's judges appointed Carol Ruff, a 42-year-old Lady's Island attorney, to serve as Smith's interim replacement and have recommended to Toal that she be given the job permanently. Stone also reassigned assistant solicitor Carson Sowell Twombley to serve as the court's director.

"We expect the number of defendants in this program to increase and we expect this to now be a credible program," Stone said. "What has happened in the past is just that, and it was outside the realm of our office."