Disgraced Beaufort County clerk Smith paid Garza $900 for clothes, DUI class

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Disgraced Beaufort County clerk Smith paid Garza $900 for clothes, DUI class

Published Friday, June 8, 2012   |  923 Words  |  

Ray Garza, the former Beaufort County Clerk of Court employee who now seeks the Republican nomination for that office, told investigators in 2009 that he accepted more than $900 in clerk's funds for new clothes, a medical bill and a class he was required to take because of a years-old DUI conviction, documents indicate.

During most of Garza's 2 1/2-year stint in the office, he worked for Clerk Elizabeth Smith, who was convicted of embezzlement in 2010. Garza told a State Ethics Commission investigator that Smith wrote checks to him from an office account to help him cover emergency expenses.

Receiving the payments, though "inappropriate," was not criminal, 14th Circuit Court Solicitor Duffie Stone said Friday. Neither Garza nor any Clerk of Court employees were charged as a result of the investigation into Smith's handling of the office's money.

Garza is competing for the GOP nomination in Tuesday's primary against current Clerk Jerri Roseneau, who was appointed in August 2009 by then-Gov. Mark Sanford after Smith resigned shortly before her indictment.

Garza received three checks totaling $919 -- Smith offered the money; he did not ask for it -- and did not repay the money, he told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet on Friday.

The newspapers on Friday received copies of Garza's signed statement to a State Ethics Commission investigator July 8, 2009, along with photocopies of checks written to him from the account of "Elizabeth Smith Clerk of Court." Stone confirmed the documents' authenticity.

"We don't do polls; I don't know who is ahead, but you see what we are getting to," Garza said of Tuesday's primary election. "They are scared, so they are coming out with this information."

Roseneau said Friday she was unaware of any specific payments from office accounts from Smith to Garza.

"All those records were gone through by investigators and auditors. They went back years," she said. "There were so many records."

Roseneau added that she doesn't give employees uniform allowances or similar stipends.

Garza said he would not, either, if elected.

"With hindsight, Elizabeth had a lot of discretion. Too much discretion," Garza said. "Now, I know the books are kept tight. I know the county is making sure of that."

Smith was found guilty in 2010 of using about $23,000 from the Clerk's Office to buy life insurance policies and a family vacation home. She was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

She also faced a federal charge of using $338,500 in federal child support enforcement money to pay the salary of her husband, Manning Smith, who had presided over the Beaufort County Drug Court, as well as other drug-court costs. The money was used from January 2006 until June 2009, according to an indictment.

Smith hired Garza in April 2007 as a clerk and promoted him to division chief of common pleas. He worked for Roseneau for about four months before leaving voluntarily in December 2009. Roseneau has said Garza left the office on good terms, though they didn't work together long enough for her to form a professional opinion about him.

He currently owns Garza Process Serving and works as a title abstractor.

According to Garza's July 2009 statement to an Ethics Commission investigator, he received the first check from Smith, for $239, July 2, 2007, after he cut his head in a home accident and needed stitches. Because of paperwork delays, he had only recently been made a full-time employee of the Clerk's Office and was not yet through the 30-day waiting period for health benefits.

Smith "felt responsible for that and paid that medical bill," Garza said Friday.

The second check, for $255, came Nov. 11, 2008. The memo line is illegible, but Garza's written statement says the money was for shirts and ties to wear in court after he was promoted. He says Smith gave him the check and told him it was a uniform allowance.

The third check, for $425, was written March 13, 2009, with the memo line "ADSAP Class." Garza, at the time an active-duty Marine, was convicted of DUI in 2002 and had his license suspended for six months. He paid a fee and had his license reinstated but was notified by the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in 2008 that he still needed to take the state's Alcohol and Drug Safety Action Program class, an education and treatment program for those charged with DUI, boating under the influence and similar offenses.

"I was floored that I would receive a first notice of suspension six years later," Garza wrote. "It had to come at the (worst) time. My wife was due to have our third child in November, and we had just put an offer on a house.

"I went to Elizabeth's office and was venting about getting the letter six years later and the cost of the ADSAP course. Elizabeth offered to pay the cost of the course and said it will be good training for my work in the Drug Court."

Stone said the Ethics Commission investigator interviewed or received statements from all or nearly all of the Clerk of Court employees at that time and that Garza was not singled out, neither was he the only one to receive such payments.

"There were checks for clothing allowances," Stone said. "As I recall, there was one for a dental bill for one of the employees."