MS circuit clerk can’t use taxpayer money to fight embezzlement charges

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Mississippi taxpayers won’t have to foot the legal bill for a county circuit clerk accused of embezzlement.

Warren County Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley Palmertree, who was indicted in January on three counts of embezzlement, is on her own with her legal bills. Hinds County Judge Dewayne Thomas issued an order Tuesday that banned Palmertree from using taxpayer funds for her legal defense.

Thomas ruled that since the issue before the court is a personal one rather than a question of performance of her duties, the taxpayers aren’t obligated to pick up the tab.

SAY CHEESE: Shelly Ashley Palmertree’s mugshot from her arrest on embezzlement charges.

The Mississippi State Auditor’s office seeks to force Palmertree to pay Warren County $661,000. That includes $402,000 for Palmertree’s salary, which exceeded the state-mandated $90,000 cap on chancery and circuit clerk pay, and $163,700 for employing relatives in her office.

The court also ordered Palmertree to make a report of all funds received and disbursed to the Warren County Board of Supervisors and the court within 25 days or face contempt charges.

Palmertree isn’t the first official to allegedly take advantage of the chancery or circuit clerk’s office.

Since chancery and circuit clerks are, by state law, paid a cut of the fees they collect — minus the payroll and other costs of running their offices — the possibility for abuse is real. Before 1996, their pay wasn’t capped by any state law.

James R. Crockett, a former university administrator who has written several books on public corruption, said the previous system was ripe for corruption.

“We had cases where some of (the clerks) were making more than the governor,” Crockett said. “There’s a lot of room for hankey-pankey.”

BEST SYSTEM: William E. “Sluggo” Davis, the chancery clerk of DeSoto County for 27 years, said the fee system is the fairest.

William E. “Sluggo” Davis, who’s been the chancery clerk of DeSoto County for 27 years and is the president of the state’s Chancery Clerks Association, said there will always be bad actors in any part of government.

However, he said the way the clerks are paid, considering the multitude of their tasks and the number of assessments they have to collect for the state, is the best compensation method.

“I think the fee system is the fairest system around,” Davis said. “It’s really no different than someone paid a salary. They get additional money for additional work just like chancery and circuit clerks do. When the state changes over a computer program to charge a higher fee, that’s $2,000 a month that Sluggo Davis is liable for.”

Contact Steve Wilson at swilson@watchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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