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Circuit clerk mess prominent in ’13 county audit

Published 10:23 am Thursday, July 24, 2014

 

The first hints of Warren County’s audit for 2013 released this week chronicle the end of Shelly Ashley-Palmertree’s time heading up the circuit clerk’s office.

As has been the case in audits dating back a decade, it’s not pretty.

Palmertree is singled out for $98,794 in spending by contract auditor Bridgers & Goodman PLLC, according to a letter from the firm accepted for information Monday by the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

It includes “unallowable fees paid to attorneys and accountants” in lawsuits involving Warren County and State Auditor Stacey Pickering, namely the civil suit Palmertree filed in March 2013 that’s still unsettled in Hinds County Chancery Court. The court in that case had asked the former clerk to stop paying for her legal defense out of her office’s funds. A smaller chunk of the questioned spending, $17,719, covers “unreasonable and unnecessary expense related to bond insurance, vehicle depreciation and telephone services,” the letter said.

The firm’s David Bridgers told supervisors the larger portion, $81,075, also went to expert witnesses in the trial, which is on its third continuance.

“She knew those were not allowable,” Bridgers said. “She was forewarned, I think. The people who got the money, I assume, were aware.”

The accounting firm’s letter served as a prelude to the county’s official audit, which is expected to be posted on the state auditor’s website by the fall, along with routine audits from other counties.

Supervisors declared the circuit clerk’s office vacant May 19 and appointed Greg Peltz, a former retail store manager. The move was based on documents and other evidence state auditors presented to the board showing Palmertree had declared residence in Madison County in 2013 and planned to purchase a home in Canton.

Within a week of her ouster, Pickering’s office said demands on Palmertree to pay the county back for improperly withdrawing fee accounts and other illegal payments to family members totals $1.04 million, including interest and investigative costs. On top of the legal defense spending inflating that total, Bridgers’ letter also lists $4,720 in payments in 2013 made to family members in the first degree of kinship.

The civil suit is one of two unresolved cases on the former clerk. The case before Hinds Chancellor Dewayne Thomas is to determine 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. Attorneys for the state and county have asked Thomas to amend the overall case to pursue $156,500 they say Palmertree owes in over-the-cap fees for 2012. The amount had been demanded after the original suit was filed.

A criminal embezzlement case against Palmertree goes to trial Sept. 29 in Warren County Circuit Court before appointed Judge Henry Lackey, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case. In it, the state says Palmertree inappropriately transferred funds from her office’s criminal and civil accounts to her personal account on two separate occasions in 2012. The amounts total $12,000.