Uncovered: Williamsburg clerk was unhappy with pay before giving herself $30K raise, official says | State9 min read
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in collaboration with The Kingstree News, an Uncovered partner.
KINGSTREE — Williamsburg County Clerk of Court Sharon Staggers was unhappy with her nearly $62,000 annual salary — and County Council’s refusal to raise it — before she unilaterally gave herself a controversial $30,000 pay raise last year, according to a top county official.
Staggers felt she deserved more money because she performs duties as the county’s register of deeds as well as clerk of court, County Supervisor Tiffany Cooks told The Post and Courier and Kingstree News. That apparently led Staggers to hike her own pay from a pot of federal dollars she controls, Cooks said.
That explanation will be under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. Investigators from the State Law Enforcement Division are probing Staggers’ office in connection with the raise, the newspapers reported March 7 as part of an Uncovered investigation.
Officials from the state Department of Social Services also are reviewing the veteran clerk’s spending from a fund that is meant to enhance Williamsburg County’s child support enforcement efforts.
A DSS spokeswoman said the agency was scheduled to meet soon with SLED to compare notes.
Staggers declined to comment for this story, saying she would tell her side when she is ready.
Tension over Staggers’ raise simmered for weeks within Williamsburg County government before it was exposed as part of Uncovered, a Post and Courier-led effort to partner with community newspapers in investigating questionable conduct by officials in small-town South Carolina.
Leaders of the state’s second-poorest county said they were shocked to learn Staggers could boost her own pay by 50 percent without their OK.
Some decried the apparent lack of guardrails preventing Staggers and South Carolina’s 45 other clerks of court from dipping into money that is meant to keep the state’s child support program running smoothly.
Neither the state nor the federal government checks to see how clerks of court spend money from that fund, authorities acknowledged. Instead, they blindly trust those elected officials to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.
“No one anticipated or expected that she would do anything like this,” longtime Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods told The Post and Courier. “Everyone thought she was above board and would do what was in the best interest and benefit of Williamsburg County.”
Sonny Reel, Edgefield County’s clerk of court and the vice president of the S.C. Association of Clerks of Court and Registers of Deeds, strongly questioned Staggers’ decision.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Reel said. “I will say that the majority of clerks that I know would not have done something like that.”
The Post and Courier and Kingstree News retrieved and combed through nearly 150 pages of Staggers’ spending records as part of Uncovered. Among the findings so far:
Even before the $30,000 raise, Staggers was already paid more than her peers in five similarly sized counties, most of whom have clerks who also double as registers of deeds.
Staggers did not seek advice from the Ethics Commission or Attorney General’s Office before giving herself the raise.
Staggers is only the latest in a string of S.C. clerks whose spending decisions have come under scrutiny. At least four others have faced criminal charges for dipping improperly into child support accounts.
Critics say the episode provides even more evidence that South Carolina’s oversight of local government officials is sorely lacking.
Dedication and integrityWilliamsburg County voters first elected Staggers as clerk of court in 2012, putting the Democrat in charge of managing dockets, tracking fines and fees, maintaining court records and a host of other administrative duties.
Staggers had worked in the office for 16 years before running to lead it.
“I am running for Williamsburg County clerk of court because the clerk of court should be accountable to all citizens, not a select few,” Staggers told The Florence Morning News ahead of that election. “The clerk of court’s office should be ran by someone with integrity and someone who conducts themselves first in a respectable manner. … I have the experience, education, dedication and integrity.”
She was most recently reelected in 2020, coasting to victory without any challengers.
But by then, Staggers had begun to complain about her pay, according to Cooks, the county supervisor and its most powerful official.
Cooks began posting employee salaries on the county website in 2019, and Staggers was annoyed to see other employees making more than her, Cooks said. Staggers thought she deserved more money because she also doubled as the county’s register of deeds, recording all property transactions and records, Cooks said.
But County Council declined Staggers’ requests for pay hikes, reasoning that there wasn’t enough money in the budget because county revenues were stagnant, Cooks said.
Still, even before the raise, Staggers was already making more than the clerks of court in Dillon, Edgefield, Jasper, Union and Chester — the five S.C. counties closest in size to Williamsburg, an Uncovered analysis found.
None reported earning more than $59,400 on their most recent ethics filings. In four of the five counties, the clerks of court also serve as the register of deeds, like Staggers.
Staggers’ raise brought her annual pay to more than $92,900.
‘Not about the money’Staggers gave herself the $30,000 raise from a little-known and scarcely regulated pot of federal dollars, records show.
The money comes from Title IV-D of the 1975 Social Security Act, which requires states to operate child support enforcement programs, helping parents by establishing paternity, getting court orders and collecting payments.
The federal government gives South Carolina nearly $6 million a year to pay for those efforts. The state’s Department of Social Services, in turn, shares nearly half of that money with the Palmetto State’s 46 clerks of court, who help out by scheduling court hearings for child support cases and handling other administrative duties.
Clerks must follow one overarching rule as they spend that money: Every dime must go toward enhancing child support enforcement efforts.
Clerks have used the money in the past to purchase new copiers, upgrade courtroom audio-visual equipment, travel to conferences, hire temporary employees for special projects and reward employees who go the extra mile with one-time bonuses.
Less clear, though, is whether Staggers’ decision to direct the money to herself was appropriate.
As justification for the raise, Staggers forwarded county officials a brief 2015 email from a DSS official advising clerks that they could use Title IV-D money to pay salaries for employees in their office. It did not clearly say whether clerks could boost their own pay with the money. She also sent them a copy of her contract with DSS.
But in February, in response to questions from The Post and Courier, DSS said clerks can’t use Title IV-D money to pay for salaries that should be a part of the county’s annual budget.
It is unclear whether Staggers sought outside legal advice before hiking her own pay.
She didn’t ask the Ethics Commission or Attorney General’s Office for advice, those agencies said. DSS would not say whether Staggers contacted the agency for permission to pay herself with Title IV-D funds, citing the ongoing SLED investigation.
The agency is still reviewing Staggers’ spending records and hasn’t drawn any conclusions from them yet, it said.
Reel, the clerks association vice president, said he doesn’t think it was right.
Staggers knew what the job paid when she ran for it, Reel said. If she wanted more money, she should have persuaded County Council to give her a raise in the annual budget, he said.
“We’re elected officials,” Reel said. “We’re held to a higher standard than the average citizen. We’re supposed to do our best. It’s not about the money.”
John Crangle, a longtime government watchdog who has pushed for stronger ethics laws, called the raise “a serious conflict of interest.”
“I think it’s a violation of the Ethics Act because it’s a use of public office for personal gain,” Crangle said.
A string of scandalsStaggers is far from the first clerk of court to run into trouble.
Clerks and their staffs handle a bonanza of fees, fines and payments that are collected by the court system — pots of money that have proven too tempting for some.
At least eight clerks or their employees in South Carolina have been arrested since 2010 and convicted of mishandling public funds or evidence, according to The Post and Courier’s Uncovered database. Half of those cases involved officials siphoning off money intended for child support enforcement or related efforts. Among those were:
Former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Mason Smith, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to embezzling $68,500 from child support enforcement accounts. She was sentenced to six months of home confinement, then two years of supervised release.
Former Cherokee County Deputy Clerk of Court Melanie Sparks, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to stealing more than $60,000 in funds intended for child support. Sparks was sentenced to eight months imprisonment followed by eight months of home confinement and ordered to pay restitution.
Julia Chandler Phipps, who used her position as deputy clerk of court in Union County to plunder more than $10,000 from the county’s child support account in 2018. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and three years of probation.
Staggers isn’t even the only S.C. clerk of court currently facing a SLED probe.
The agency is investigating in Allendale County after a forensic audit last summer revealed the clerk there had paid $13,195 in Christmas bonuses to herself and her staff out of a discretionary fund in 2020. The bonus checks ranged from $1,295 to $3,720, but the clerk didn’t account for them in the county payroll system or report them to the IRS on W-2s, the audit states.
SC water tank wasn’t cleaned for years as sludge grew inside. Apparently no one noticed.
Reel said the state clerks of court association has worked to counter those trends by strengthening the qualifications for office.
Currently, a candidate for clerk of court need only be a registered voter and a resident of the county where they seek office.
Reel’s group has tried to persuade state lawmakers to require a four-year college degree or equivalent experience working in a clerk’s office, but so far they haven’t garnered much interest.
“It’s extremely difficult to get legislators to change laws,” he said.
‘Major lack of supervision’On the heels of the Staggers controversy, local officials and legislators are already talking about ways to prevent the next dust-up over Title IV-D money.
Some were surprised to learn that DSS doesn’t check behind clerks of court to see how they spend the money, merely trusting that clerks will follow the federal guidelines and use good judgment.
That means clerks can spend tens of thousands of dollars each year from those accounts with no one looking over their shoulder.
And as they dug into Staggers’ dealings from Title IV-D accounts, Williamsburg County officials said they had a hard time getting straight answers from DSS about the rules for how that money could be spent.
“We definitely need to shore up the standards and requirements for the use of the money,” said state Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Kingstree, who said he has seen outrage from constituents over Staggers’ raise. “We need to evaluate that and do a better job of putting in parameters of how the money can and can’t be used. That’s abundantly clear.”
Crangle said the Staggers controversy is the kind of mess that can unfold when local officials are left to their own devices.
“There is a major lack of supervision, which is a chronic problem in local government across South Carolina,” Crangle said. “There are a lot of positions where people can just do whatever they want. Clerks are that way. Sheriffs are that way.”
Crangle noted the state’s Attorney General’s Office and 16 solicitors haven’t followed an 1837 law that requires them to conduct examinations of sheriffs, clerks of court and registers of deeds — local elected officials who have repeatedly run afoul of the law.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has vowed to block that effort.
He said the law provides an important tool for oversight and a place whistleblowers can turn to to ensure their concerns are looked at. Without the law, “there is no deterrent to any of these public officials,” he said.
“If they want to repeal it and replace it with something better, fine,” Harpootlian said. “But just repealing it won’t do any good. That just eliminates a tool.