UNCOVERED: Clerk gives herself $30K raise, draws SLED investigation | Local4 min read
This story was produced in collaboration with The Kingstree News, an Uncovered partner.
KINGSTREE — A Williamsburg County official is under investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division after giving herself a $30,000 raise last year from a pot of federal money she controls, an Uncovered examination has found.
Sharon Staggers, who has served as Williamsburg County’s clerk of court for the past decade, showered herself and her nine-person staff with payments from a little-known fund that was created to enhance child support enforcement efforts, according to records obtained by The Post and Courier on March 7 through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Staggers’ annual pay ballooned to more than $92,900 with the payout, nearly surpassing the county sheriff’s salary. Fellow officials say the raise reeks of self-service in a county where the median household income is less than $32,500 and more than a quarter of residents live in poverty.
“I’m just against stuff like that,” Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods said. “Maybe legally it’s not wrong, but morally it certainly is. That’s something the citizens need to be aware of.”
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Staggers, a Democrat first elected in 2012, didn’t return messages seeking comment and declined to speak with a Kingstree News reporter who approached her at her office on March 7, referring all questions to county attorney Billy Jenkinson.
But Jenkinson himself could offer no explanation for the raise, even after spending weeks digging into the matter to respond to the newspaper’s FOIA request.
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Jenkinson said the county has asked the state Department of Social Services, which oversees South Carolina’s child support program, to weigh in on whether it was appropriate for Staggers to boost her own pay with federal dollars. Key to answering that question is a vague set of federal guidelines outlining how the state’s 46 clerks of court can spend mounds of tax dollars.
“When you find out more, let me know,” Jenkinson told a reporter. “I’m curious to know myself. We don’t know the answers.”
DSS officials were unavailable for comment late March 7.
The Post and Courier and Kingstree News dug into Staggers’ spending as part of Uncovered, an effort to partner with local newspapers to investigate questionable conduct by officials in small-town South Carolina.
Questions about Staggers’ pay have circulated among Williamsburg County leaders for months, ever since County Supervisor Tiffany Cooks learned of the raise and brought it to the attention of County Council.
Councilman Joe Miller said he was shocked. His outrage grew when he learned County Council couldn’t stop it since this pot of federal money is controlled exclusively by the clerk of court.
“That’s why faith in the government now is eroding because we really don’t act like we’re stewards of the citizens’ money,” Miller said. “We just go around spending money, doing what we want to do, saying nothing can happen to us.”
Word of the raise reached SLED’s offices in Columbia.
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“SLED agents are investigating the Williamsburg County Clerk of Court’s Office,” SLED spokesman Ryan Alphin confirmed March 7. “No additional information is available at this time while agents continue to investigate.”
Financial records and emails obtained by the newspaper show county officials struggling to follow the money trail. Payouts came from a fund called Title IV-D — money the federal government sends to states to pay for their child support programs.
Included in the 147 pages of records was a scanned copy of a 1995 opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office about whether counties must follow standard purchasing rules when they spend Title IV-D money.
In January, Jenkinson asked the county’s chief of finance, Liz Nelson, for help understanding the flurry of checks and payments.
“Is this in addition to regular pay they receive?” he asked. “Help me get a grip on what is going on with the employees pay please.”
“I need to get my head wrapped around this,” he wrote in a follow-up email.
Records show Staggers provided county officials with a 2015 email from DSS advising the state’s 46 clerks of court that they could use Title IV-D money to pay salaries for employees in their office, with some exceptions. It did not clearly say whether clerks could boost their own pay with the money.
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County emails indicate the payments were distributed in a series of “incentive” payments to Staggers and her staff. The clerk’s Christmastime haul? $8,000.
Brandon Alter of The Kingstree News contributed to this report.