Beaufort County officials knew as early as 2007 that former County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith was misusing public money -- to give employees a clothing allowance -- and didn't properly monitor her spending, according to a lawyer for Smith's former assistant and friend.
Former deputy clerk Janice Young filed a wrongful termination lawsuit last month against the county and Smith's successor, Jerri Ann Roseneau. It alleges, among other things, that Young's firing broke South Carolina's whistle-blower law, which makes it illegal for a public employee to be fired, suspended or demoted for reporting wrongdoing.
Young's attorney, Amy Gaffney of Columbia, said Tuesday that Smith had conversations with county administrator Gary Kubic in 2007 in which Kubic questioned the former clerk about "thousands of dollars" in clothing stipends Smith had given Clerk's Office employees. Gaffney said Smith will be called to testify about those conversations, which predated Young's hiring in April 2007.
Gaffney said the conversations between Kubic and Smith prove county officials knew of Smith's questionable use of public funds and failed to "properly monitor the former Clerk of Court's use of public monies." That is the issue Young said led to her being fired in July from her $64,583-a-year job.
The lawsuit said Smith told Young she was fired for alleged insubordination but Young claims the real reason for her termination was retaliation for cooperating with investigators looking into Smith's misuse of public funds.
Smith resigned July 30 after she was charged with embezzling public funds and misconduct in office.
Young appealed her termination to a county grievance board, which recommended Young be reinstated. However, Roseneau chose not to hire her back.
Young seeks actual damages, according to the suit. No dollar amount was specified.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone's office declined Tuesday to release additional information about the state's ongoing investigation into the clerk's finances.
Kubic declined to comment Tuesday on Young's lawsuit.
The clerk of court is an elected office and operates independently of Beaufort County, though the County Council approves the clerk's budget and pays the salaries of clerk's office employees.
If subpoenaed for Young's civil suit, Smith could testify or invoke her constitutional rights against self-incrimination, Gaffney said.
Gaffney said she hopes to take Young's lawsuit to court after Smith's criminal case has been settled, to eliminate any conflict of interest that might prevent the former clerk from testifying. Smith is set to appear in court for a preliminary hearing today, though a trial date has not been set.
"What will Elizabeth Smith have to lose by testifying?" Gaffney said. "It doesn't impugn her in any way to acknowledge that she had one or more than one conversation with (Kubic) about these clothing stipends. We are trusting that truth will prevail and that Elizabeth Smith will tell the truth. At the heart of the matter is that Elizabeth Smith and Janice were very, very close friends. I believe Elizabeth Smith doesn't hold any ill will toward Janice and Janice doesn't hold any ill will toward Elizabeth."
In addition to sharing the same office in the Beaufort County Courthouse, Smith and Young ran a business together sewing vestments and other religious garments for area clergy.
Attempts Tuesday to reach to Smith's attorney, Mike Macloskie of Beaufort, were unsuccessful.
The county has until Dec. 18 to file a response to Young's suit.