Judge: Clerk to stay off stand

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Monday. ( Eli Baylis  / Vicksburg Post )

Conclusions by the state auditor’s office into reports of impropriety in the circuit clerk’s office under Shelly Ashley-Palmertree and her father and predecessor in office, Larry Ashley, were clear to those who led the investigations, according to testimony Tuesday in the civil case involving her accounting practices over a seven-year span.

What won’t be coming out is any further testimony from the three-term clerk herself.

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Hinds County Chancellor Dewayne Thomas decided Tuesday not to require Palmertree to take the stand to be cross-examined by attorneys for State Auditor Stacey Pickering or Warren County. Joe Hollaman, Palmertree’s lawyer in a separate criminal case had appeared in court Monday to ask she be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment for the duration of the trial, which was set to pick up again and wrap up on Thursday.

“There doesn’t appear to be significant evidence that hurts or helps Warren County’s case,” Thomas said when it came up in the opening minutes of trial Tuesday. “We’ve spent four days on this case.”

Special Assistant Attorney General Melissa Patterson, who represents Pickering in the case, and county board attorney Marcie Southerland quickly raised objections, reminding the judge Palmertree had taken the stand in December. Patterson said she would present case law on the matter today.

At issue in the civil case, which Palmertree filed 13 months ago against Warren County and State Auditor Stacey Pickering, is whether she owes the county $671,751.75 in excessive salary above the state-set cap for circuit and chancery clerks and questionable subcontractor payments to her father and predecessor in office, Larry Ashley. The amounts cover activity from 2006 through 2011. The state and county countersued last April and contend the payments were improper.

Court-ordered mediation talks ordered after three days of testimony in December broke down in January. A trial date has not been set in the criminal case.

The state and county’s countersuit also included CNA Surety, the parent of Western Surety Company, which insures most county officials and had bonded Palmertree during her first 8 1⁄2 years in office.

In testimony in December, Palmertree answered questions from Vollor about $137,994.68 in overdrawn criminal and civil account fees she had paid back in February 2012. Court briefs showed $5,059 of it was from her own term and the bulk of it dated to her father’s time in office. She had said she was “under the impression” the matter was settled at that point. The state has specified $402,033 of the total debt involved over-the-cap fees, a detail she testified she was unaware of until later that year.

On Tuesday, Frank Vollor, her lead attorney in the civil case, formally rested their side of the case by saying she doesn’t contest owing over-the-cap funds, but that she could be credited $438,232 based on old debts from Larry’s tenure. Pickering’s office has said the claim is moot because a separate inquiry into similar problems in Larry’s office was settled in 2012, thus leaving no debt to trade.

The rest of the day’s testimony came from one current and one retired member of the state auditor’s investigations division.

Jay Strait, the agent who was assigned to lead the inquiry that led to the civil case, testified his work started in spring 2011 with a complaint about the clerk’s sister, Kelly Ashley, a onetime employee in the current administration, being paid without being at work. No investigation ensued due to insufficient information, Strait said.

Strait said that effort grew into further meetings with accountant David Bridgers, who conducted the county’s official audits for eight years, the last six of which cover the period of time at issue in the case. Spreadsheets compiled based on seven years of audits led to clear conclusions, Strait said.

“It plainly showed she owed it, based on the annual financial reports,” Strait said, adding Palmertree banked on some sort of credit for her father’s repayments. “She knew who owed this money, but wanted to wait before the other item settled before she paid it.”

Vollor continued a strategy of pointing out differing explanations taken to Palmertree’s finances in audits between 2003 and 2010, some that didn’t specify explicitly that payments to relatives were at issue. He asked Strait if he had remembered the clerk telling him of her expectations of “a wash” between Larry’s and Shelly’s debts.
“We get told a lot of things when we have an investigation,” Strait said. “But, everything’s that’s said isn’t the truth.”
Ben Norris, who was deputy director of investigations for the auditor’s office in 2005 when the investigation into Larry Ashley’s office finances began, said his office found several instances of checks written to office employees from the civil and criminal accounts, which is disallowed.

In a twist, Vollor objected to Patterson’s continued questions to Norris, saying the matter with Larry Ashley was settled.

“If Mr. Vollor would like to stipulate this case is settled, we’ll be fine with that,” Patterson said.

Eileen Van Der Weele, also of the auditor’s investigative division, also dealt with questions about how specific the county’s audits were from one year to the next. She rebuffed Vollor’s question on whether a finding of a problem with the first-degree kinship would be an exception or should fit some other definition.

“I can’t answer for a public official,” Van Der Weele said. “That’s more of a specific question for a county audit supervisor, because I’m not an auditor.”