Criminal charges against ex-court clerk may again postpone civil lawsuit

Former Deputy Clerk of Court Janice Young's plans to sue Beaufort County for wrongful termination might have hit another roadblock, her attorney says.

Young claimed in a lawsuit filed last November that then-clerk Elizabeth Smith fired her in July 2009 because Young cooperated with an S.C. Ethics Commission investigation into Smith's misuse of public money. Young said her firing violated the state's whistle-blower law and that county officials knew Smith was improperly giving her employees thousands of dollars in clothing stipends and did nothing to stop it.

Young and Smith had been close friends and business partners outside of their jobs in the clerk's office. They sewed elaborate vestments and other religious garments for area clergy. Young testified during Smith's trial this week, saying her cooperation with state investigators damaged her close friendship with the former clerk.

"I wanted to believe Elizabeth, but she knew what she did was wrong," Young testified. "We were friends ... but our relationship changed."

Smith wrote in an e-mail after the trial that the charges against her shouldn't reflect poorly on Young.

"Whatever painful events have and will happen should never be used to impeach the dignity of (Young)," the e-mail said.

Meanwhile, the status of Young's lawsuit against the county is uncertain. In May, a judge dismissed it "without prejudice" - meaning that Young could re-file it, but not until Smith's trial in state court on embezzlement charges concluded.

Smith was convicted Tuesday of embezzlement and misconduct for using $23,500 in public money to for payments on life insurance policies and a family vacation home. She was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

That might have cleared the way for Young to re-file her suit, but the next day Smith was charged again - this time by federal authorities for unlawful conversion of public funds. Smith is accused of using $338,500 intended for child-support cases in part to pay her husband's salary. Smith's husband, Manning Smith, was judge of the Beaufort County Drug Court at the time. Manning Smith was removed as Drug Court judge in August 2009.

Young's attorney, Amy Gaffney of Columbia, said she doesn't know whether the new charges against Smith mean Young will again have to wait to re-file her suit against the county."Janice is definitely planning to re-file the suit, but there is some question now, since Ms. Smith has been indicted on federal charges, whether we'll need to wait for some disposition of that charge before re-filing," Gaffney said.

After Young was fired by Smith last year, Young appealed to a county grievance board. The board recommended in September 2009 that she be reinstated.

However, Jerri Ann Roseneau, the new clerk who replaced Smith, chose not to rehire Young. Roseneau, who also was a defendant in Young's original lawsuit, could accept or reject the grievance committee's recommendation, according to county rules.

In a filing last year, an attorney for Beaufort County denied that county officials had prior knowledge of Smith's mishandling of public money and argued the county should be dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit because county officials have no authority over the clerk of court, which is an elected position.

Young, who began working in the clerk's office in 2007, was seeking actual damages in her original lawsuit. No dollar amount was specified.