Ex-deputy clerk of court sues to get her job back under whistle-blower law

Beaufort County officials knew as early as 2008 that former Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith was mishandling public funds but did nothing to stop it, Smith's former deputy and friend claims in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed Friday.

Former Beaufort County Deputy Clerk of Court Janice Young is suing the county and new Clerk of Court Jerri Ann Roseneau, who did not re-hire Young after a county grievance committee recommended she be reinstated.

The suit did not specify which county employees knew of Smith's misconduct or when they learned of it. Young deferred questions about the allegation to her attorney, Amy Gaffney of Columbia, who could not be reached for comment Friday.

Young claims she was fired in July by former clerk Elizabeth Smith for cooperating with an investigation into Smith's alleged misuse of public funds.

Smith was charged July 31 with four counts of embezzlement of public funds. She resigned the same day. Prosecutors say she took $23,500 from public accounts to pay for insurance premiums and a vacation home. Smith also was charged with misconduct in office. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Young alleges her firing violated the state's whistle-blower law and that the county failed to "properly monitor" Smith's use of public funds, setting off a chain of events that caused Young to lose her job. She is seeking actual damages, according to the filing.

The county has 30 days to respond.

Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic declined to comment. Roseneau referred questions to county attorney Ladson Howell, who could not be reached Friday evening.

Young's suit says that in April, she learned Smith had written checks for her own use from the office's bondsmen account, a fund that local bond companies pay into, allowing them to do business in Beaufort County.

Young claims she met with S.C. Ethics Commission investigators in June and July to report Smith's conduct and presented them with financial records proving the transactions. Of the $23,500 Smith is charged with embezzling, more than $13,000 was drawn form the bondsmen account, according to prosecutors. The investigation, which began in May, is ongoing.

Young's suit says Smith fired her July 9 for alleged insubordination. She had worked in the clerk's office since April 2007. More than two weeks later, Young filed a complaint with the Beaufort County Employee Grievance Committee appealing her termination and requesting reinstatement.

The five-member committee voted unanimously Sept. 14 to uphold Young's grievance and recommended that she be given her job back, according to county records.

Young said the committee's ruling made it clear that her firing was unjustified.

"I very much appreciate the unanimous support of the grievance committee," Young wrote in an e-mail to The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet earlier this week. "Obviously, they value the truth, which I believe sends a positive message to county employees."

However, Roseneau did not give Young her job back, according to a letter the clerk sent to Young on Sept. 28.

"(T)he state of South Carolina has a public interest in encouraging public employees to report suspected or observed wrongdoing by a public official or employee," Young's lawsuit reads. "(I)n upholding (Young's) termination .... (Roseneau) violated the public policy of the state of South Carolina."

The county's employee handbook allows department heads, in this case Roseneau, to decide whether to act on a recommendation by the grievance committee.

Young also alleges her firing was retaliation for cooperating with investigators. Under the state's whistle-blower law, if such a claim is substantiated, Young would be entitled to reinstatement, lost wages and actual damages of up to $15,000. The law makes it illegal for a public employee to be fired, demoted or suspended for reporting wrongdoing or misconduct.