Palmertree hires new lawyer, asks for more time

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A new legal defense team means Shelly Ashley-Palmertree needs more time to learn the facts of the state’s criminal case against her — according to pleadings filed in court in advance of a trial that has been pushed back from next week’s start date.

The three-term clerk, facing jail time on three counts of embezzlement, has hired Jackson law firm Joe M. Hollaman & Associates, according to a request filed in the case March 3. The motion asks specially appointed judge Henry L. Lackey for a timeout while the new lawyers take over the case originally set for trial next Monday.

Palmertree “was served a superseding indictment in this cause and, additionally, has since retained new counsel, who will represent her on this matter going forward, and has not yet had sufficient time to obtain all discovery and to familiarize himself with the facts of this case,” read part of the motion.

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The trial has been rescheduled, with a date to be determined, said Jan Schaefer, spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, when reached Monday.

Palmertree was previously represented in the case by former circuit judge Frank Vollor and James “Buck” Penley Jr.

An indictment in January against the clerk essentially replaced one from August that was dropped because of a docketing error. The most recent one accused the clerk of inappropriately transferring funds on three occasions in 2012 from her office’s civil and criminal accounts into her circuit clerk fee account.

The circuit clerk’s office collects fines and fees and restitution in criminal and civil cases. State law requires those funds remain in their designated accounts.

Between Feb. 2 and Feb. 21, 2012, she is accused of transferring $5,000 from her office’s criminal account into the account from which she draws her salary, according to the indictment.

She is also accused of twice inappropriately transferring funds from the civil account into her personal account — once for $3,000 between Nov. 7 and Nov. 15, 2012, and once for $4,000 between Nov. 19 and Nov. 21, 2012.

Hood’s office will lead the criminal case against Palmertree. The case was first investigated by State Auditor Stacy Pickering’s Office, who turned over their findings to District Attorney Ricky Smith last April. Smith recused himself and gave the case to Hood, citing ethics rules that don’t allow prosecutors to have contact with defendants between indictment and trial.

Additional arguments in a civil case involving accounting procedures in the clerk’s office from 2006 through 2011 are set April 15, 16 and 18 in Hinds County Chancery Court. Court-ordered mediation talks in that case broke down in January. In December, Chancellor Dewayne Thomas ordered the talks at the conclusion of three days of testimony.

At issue in the civil case, which Palmertree filed against Warren County and Pickering a year ago this Thursday, is whether she owes the county $671,751.75 in excessive salary and subcontractor fees paid to her father and predecessor in office, Larry Ashley. The state and county countersued last April and contend the payments the state were improper. That countersuit also included CNA Surety, the parent of Western Surety Company, which insures most county officials and had bonded Palmertree during her first 81⁄2 years in office.

In briefs filed March 7, the company said the state/county countersuit should be dismissed because it was kept out of the loop by Warren County supervisors during the six-year focus of the case. Issues with the clerk’s accounting practices have been noted on audits dating at least as far as 2003.

“The Board of Supervisors of Warren County, Mississippi, had full and complete knowledge of any and all alleged misappropriation and/or misuse of funds by Western Surety’s principal but failed to disclose the same to Western Surety prior to its issuing Public Official bonds on Palmertree’s behalf, thereby discharging Western Surety from liability to Warren County,” read part of an eight-page amended formal answer to the state’s an