Despite investigations into two court clerks, state's confidence in the office still high

Separate accusations against former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith and a former Union County Clerk of Court for misuing state child support funds haven't shaken the state's confidence in its 46 clerks of court.

The Department of Social Service works with the clerks to collect and disperse child support in their respective counties.

"On the whole, DSS is satisfied with the working relationship it has with the clerks of court," said Larry McKeown, the director of Child Support Enforcement, a branch of DSS. "It is a joint effort to collect child support that has a successful 30-year history that, over that period, has collected more than $1.5 billion for children in South Carolina and other states.

"It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of the clerks of court are dedicated and trustworthy public servants."

Smith resigned her post in Beaufort in July after a S.C. Ethics Commission investigation indicated she had written checks from two public accounts to pay personal expenses.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone sought the probe after he suspected that Smith had moved federal dollars earmarked for child support enforcement to the drug court program run by her husband, Manning Smith.

How much money Smith diverted to the drug court and whether it was proper to do so is under investigation by the Ethics Commission and the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Child support funds are also at the center of a S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigation into accounts managed by former Union Clerk of Court Brad Morris, who resigned last month. The investigation was initiated after the county's child support account was overdrawn and child support checks bounced.

Within a three-month period, Gov. Mark Sanford appointed Jerri Ann Roseneau to replace Smith and a new Union County clerk to replace Morris.

Sanford's spokesman Ben Fox said the governor would like DSS to review the role clerks of court play in the state's child support system.

"To the degree that DSS is involved ... we'd generally support every state agency regularly reviewing their methods and procedures to make sure they are best serving the public," Fox said.

Within two years, the issue could become moot -- a federal mandate will centralize child support payments across the state by October 2011. All alimony and child support from that point on will flow through DSS, McKeown said.