Palmertree ousted from office
Published 11:48 am Tuesday, May 20, 2014
For the first time in 27 years, someone not named Ashley heads the Warren County Circuit Clerk’s Office.
Greg Peltz, 66, a retired retail manager, was the choice of four-fifths of the Board of Supervisors to head the office on an interim basis. The move followed a unanimous vote earlier in the day to declare the office, held by Shelly Ashley-Palmertree since 2004, vacant over school registration documents and utility bills obtained by investigators with the Office of the State Auditor. They contend the documents prove the three-term clerk had declared herself a Madison County resident last summer.
No legal challenge to the supervisors’ bold move had been filed as of this morning. The vacation declaration was based on a state law that requires a public official to live in the county for which they are elected. In July, the board had declared her office vacant based on a state law that prevents someone with a canceled surety bond from holding office. That move was countered with a temporary restraining order from the circuit court, citing another part of state law that said she was entitled to more time to post a new bond.
Investigators with State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office spent the hours after the vote changing locks on the clerk’s office, with the help of county building maintenance crews. Earlier, the investigators produced five documents subpoenaed as part of ongoing litigation involving Palmertree’s residency. One was an affidavit of residence for the Madison County School District signed by the clerk and dated July 23, 2013. The clerk wrote 114 Fairchild Cove in Canton as her permanent residence. Palmertree, 43, has two school-age daughters. A second was a lease-purchase agreement between the clerk and the residence’s owners. Amounts owed and paid were blotted out. Two utility bills, one from Entergy for $422.35 and one from AT&T for Internet and TV service for $142.32, were also accepted. The fifth was a photo taken in April of Palmertree’s black Lexus SUV parked in front of the Canton home.
No landline was listed in phone records at the address. A call placed to a cellphone for Palmertree was not returned Monday.
Lance Tompkins, a process server, was one of two people questioned under oath by board attorney Marcie Southerland during the evidentiary hearing, convened near the end of supervisors’ regular morning meeting. Seated in a chair next to Southerland in the cramped boardroom, he told supervisors Southerland had asked him to notify the clerk of the evidentiary hearing. Tompkins, a nephew of deputy clerk Dean Brantley, said he worked through his aunt to contact Palmertree, then was re-directed to give the notice to a private investigator hired by Jackson attorney Joe Hollomon, who represents her in a pending criminal embezzlement case. It was then he learned of the Canton address, he said.
“It’s my understanding it’s her boyfriend’s house,” Tompkins said. Warren County Chancery Court records show Palmertree and husband, Roger, divorced in 2010. Warren County land records show the house where the Palmertrees had claimed residence, 207 Brookwood Drive, off Culkin Road, was put in her name exclusively in 2011. Property taxes for 2013 were paid under her name and totaled $1,844, records show.
Later, OSA special agent Bob Woods said he visited the Canton house with investigator Jay Strait based on information on the house gleaned with the help of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. The subpoenaed records from Charlotte Smith Real Estate showed Palmertree “had worked out a lease-purchase agreement with the lady” who owned the house, Woods said. Utility bills showed the same residence. Woods said another family is renting Palmertree’s home on Brookwood Drive, based on a visit there by investigators in April.
Peltz, a onetime district manager with Radio Shack, will hold the office until the county sets a special election date, likely to be Nov. 3 with other general election races. Qualifying would begin when the date is set and end 60 days before the election, as per state law on vacancies in county offices. The race would be one of three local offices on the federal midterm ballot for U.S. House and Senate; the others are school board election in District 3 and 4 and a special election for central district constable.
The silver-haired Peltz was among four candidates supervisors chose on the fly after their morning session and hastily shuttled into the courthouse at a rare 4 p.m. board meeting for interviews and deliberation.
“I’m excited about getting the office up and running again,” Peltz said minutes after the vote, adding his interest in the job stemmed from the media attention generated by Palmertree’s myriad legal problems.
“It’s a shame what happened to her,” he said. “She was a sweet girl.”
Peltz was chosen over insurance agent and former school board member Jan Hyland Daigre — who garnered 32 percent of the vote to finish second in a four-way race for circuit clerk in 2011 — Stacy Smith, a legal assistant, and Patricia Winston, a retired federal employee.
The vote itself exposed political fault lines on the county board that couldn’t be held back despite public frustration with the circuit clerk mess. District 5 Supervisor Richard George motioned to appoint Daigre, but the move died for lack of a second. District 1 Supervisor John Arnold motioned for Peltz, then District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon motioned for Winston; both motions similarly died. Arnold then reiterated his motion for Peltz, which District 2 Supervisor William Banks seconded. The motion passed 4-1, with Selmon voting no.
“It was clear there was no way to lock it,” George said of his motion for Daigre when reached later, adding Board President Bill Lauderdale would have supported Daigre. “It’s a short-time appointment, and it will be put back in the hands of the people.” Calls after the meeting to Lauderdale and to Selmon, who left the meeting in short order to fly to Alaska for a National Association of Counties conference, were not returned.
Arnold said Peltz approached him for the job and had remembered him from when the first-term supervisor handled real estate matters for Fast Lane convenient stores and Peltz sold him audio equipment.
“He’s good with computers and good with figures,” Arnold said after interviews finished. “He’s gone in and fixed troubled stores.”
Two cases involving financial misconduct in Palmertree’s office remain active despite Monday’s vote to vacate and replace her. The civil case, which Palmertree filed against State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Warren County in March 2013 and was later countered, is set for a third round of testimony Oct. 6 before Hinds Chancellor Dewayne Thomas. The clerk and the other entities have asked the court to decide whether she owes $671,751.75 in excessive salary and questionable subcontractor payments to her father and predecessor in office, Larry Ashley, between 2006 and 2011. Mediation ordered in the case after testimony in December broke down in January. Those specific debts would follow the clerk and not Peltz or any other successor; however any ongoing irregularity in the office’s civil and criminal fee accounts are expected to be reflected on future county audits.
Larry Ashley succeeded longtime clerk George Culkin, winning four terms from 1988 to 2004.
A criminal embezzlement case against Palmertree is being prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office. In it, the state says Palmertree inappropriately transferring funds from her office’s criminal and civil accounts to her personal account on two separate occasions in 2012. The amounts total $12,000.