Audit discovers only bad accounting for discrepancy in magistrate office's books

Bad accounting, not wrongdoing, is to blame for financial discrepancies that led Beaufort County Chief Magistrate Judge Darlene Smith to ask for an audit of the court's bank accounts last year, according the county's chief financial officer.

Accountants from the Columbia firm of Scott McElveen were paid $15,000 last month to review Magistrate Court bank statements dating to 2006 for three accounts and to review an internal audit in October, in which employees discovered excess money in a fourth account. No more than $10,000 was thought to be misplaced at the time, according to county officials.

David Starkey, the county's financial officer, said auditors determined the discrepancy was caused by errors in recording transactions in the court's new accounting system.

"The court recently switched to a new accounting system, and the person in charge of that, who no longer works there, completely messed up the changeover," Starkey said. "It was bad accounting, and there was never any money actually missing."

Starkey said Smith and her staff will meet monthly with members of the county Finance Department to prevent future accounting snafus.

Smith requested the audit shortly after being approved by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal to replace Rita Simmons as the county's chief magistrate judge. Simmons retired in October after 24 years on the bench.

Magistrate courts set criminal bonds, issue search and arrest warrants, and hold trials of defendants charged with criminal offenses subject to a fine of less than $500 or fewer than 30 days in jail.

The audit of the Magistrate Court was delayed for more than eight months while Scott McElveen finished a forensic audit of 12 accounts in the Clerk of Court's office. Questionable activity in that office's accounts resulted in former clerk of court Elizabeth Smith being indicted July 30 on multiple charges of embezzling public funds and misconduct in office. Smith resigned hours before the grand jury indictments were announced.

County officials described the Magistrate Court audit as routine, and a spokesman for 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said there was never a criminal investigation into the Magistrate Court's finances.

Starkey said Scott McElveen was hired to ensure the process was as transparent as possible.