VICKSBURG, Mississippi — State Auditor Stacy Pickering’s legal wrangling with Warren County Circuit Court Clerk Shelly Palmertree over claims she vastly overpaid herself in office took a turn toward criminal prosecution Wednesday morning with Palmertree’s indictment and arrest.
The arrest came after a Warren County grand jury indicted the embattled court clerk on two felony counts of embezzlement, charges stemming from claims by the Auditor’s Office that she overpaid herself by $402,033 and wrongly made payments of $163,700 to her father.
The Auditor’s Office served a civil demand to Palmertree for repayment of $661,751.75 in early March.
Pickering’s action followed a suit by Palmertree against Warren County and Pickering in Hinds Chancery Court, seeking relief from the demands that she repay the $661,752 to cover what auditors say are payments from 2006 to 2011 exceeding the $90,000 salary cap for circuit clerks, and improper subcontractor fees paid to her father and predecessor in office, Larry Ashley.
Pickering and Warren County have countersued, arguing the noted debts must be repaid. Issues with accounting procedures in the clerk’s office have been noted on state audits dating back a decade.
In Mississippi, chancery and circuit clerks are allowed to pay themselves up to $90,000 a year out of fees collected by their offices for things like filing a lawsuit.
Pickering and Warren County supervisors say that Palmertree and her father, who preceded her as circuit clerk, owe as much as $750,000 in above-the-cap income that should have gone into the county’s coffers, the Associated Press reported in July.
A limit of $75,600 was first set in 1993, rising to $83,160, and then to $90,000 in 2004. But clerks can make more if they perform additional duties, such as working a limit of $75,600 was first set in 1993, rising to $83,160, and then to $90,000 in 2004. But clerks can make more if they perform additional duties, such as working as a county administrator or tracking inventory.
The average chancery clerk made more than $107,000 in 2011, according to auditor’s office figures. Leflore County Chancery Clerk Sam Abraham made $209,251 in 2011, and Pearl River County Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson made $209,547, according to the Associated Press.
Being a circuit clerk appears less lucrative. The average circuit clerk made $74,083 in 2011, below the cap. The top-paid circuit clerk was Jones County’s Wendell Gavin Jr., at $134,736.