Former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith was sentenced to five years probation and 200 hours of community service Tuesday after she was convicted of embezzlement and misconduct in office.
A Beaufort County jury found Smith, 47, guilty of four counts of embezzlement of public funds and one count of misconduct in office at the conclusion of a one-day trial, in which 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone called eight witnesses and presented his case in about two hours.
Smith's attorney, Mike Macloskie of Beaufort, called no witnesses in her defense.
The jury returned its verdict in 40 minutes.
Stone accused Smith of writing checks worth $23,500 from two Clerk's Office accounts between August 2006 and April 2009. The checks were used to pay life-insurance premiums for her sister and brother-in-law, and to make payments on a $980,000 vacation home on Pawleys Island owned by a family trust of which Smith was a co-trustee, Stone said.
Janice Young, Smith's former friend and deputy clerk of court, testified that Smith told her she took the money to help cover expenses.Smith made $74,138 as clerk, according to county records.
"She just told me that sometimes her "outs" came before her "ins" and that the money would be returned," Young said. "She had found a way to justify it in her mind, and I think she still justifies it. She honestly believed that what she was doing was OK."
Macloskie waived testimony from several witnesses for the prosecution and conceded that Smith wrote the checks.
Macloskie said Smith repaid any public money she took. No testimony was given Tuesday about when Smith reimbursed the accounts, though a S.C. Ethics Commission investigator testified that authorities found no money missing from the Clerk's Office.
"To this day, there is no money missing," Macloskie said during his closing argument. "There was no intent by Elizabeth to permanently deprive anyone of anything. So what are we doing here?"
Smith chose not to testify on her own behalf.
Stone argued that returning the money didn't negate the crime.
"What do we tell our children?" Stone asked during his closing argument. "We tell them ... don't take something that doesn't belong to you. It's that basic. If we expect as much from our children, we should expect as much from our public officials."
After the verdict was read, Smith's friends and Macloskie painted a grim picture of the former clerk's emotional health for Circuit Court Judge Brooks Goldsmith of Lancaster and pleaded for leniency.
"She has tortured herself," said Linda Rogers, one of Smith's childhood friends, as she fought back tears.
"The prison she has built for herself (in her mind) is more formidable than any prison I've ever visited in South Carolina," Macloskie added.
In her first public comments since resigning from the office she held for nine years, Smith tearfully asked not to be given jail time.
"I loved this county well and I loved this jobwell," said Smith, who resigned from officethe same day she was indicted. "The only thing left for me to lose is my life and my freedom."
Goldsmith chided Smith before handing down the sentence.
"I know this is a sad day for you and your family and friends, but this is a sad day for the citizens of this country who trusted you," Goldsmith said.
Smith could have faced five to 10 years in prison on each embezzlement charge. Smith can hold public office again only if approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly.
Stone argued Smith's crimes warranted a stiffer penalty.
"This isn't about the money," Stone said moments before the former clerk was sentenced. "It's never been about that. As a public official, you are in a position of public trust, and that trust was violated."
Smith will serve her probation and community service in Florence, where she now lives with her husband, Manning Smith, who formerly ran the Beaufort County Drug Court. Manning Smith, who attended the trial, was removed from that position without explanation by South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal about a week after Elizabeth Smith was indicted.