Circuit clerk’s pay issue results in lawsuit, countersuit

VICKSBURG — Trading one debt in the circuit clerk’s office to pay off another in time for Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree to win a third term was a big deal to her in 2011.
So much so, that it was written in a letter to state auditors agreeing to the swap.

“Pursuant to our phone conversation, I want to again state that your office address this matter with the local newspaper,” wrote her attorney, James L. “Buck” Penley, in a letter dated Aug. 17, 2011, to state auditors attached to a countersuit filed Monday by the state auditor and Warren County in Hinds County Chancery Court.

Two weeks before the date on the letter, Ashley-Palmertree had won a contested Democratic primary and prepared to face 2½ months later three opponents in a general election that she won with 49.7 percent of the vote. For months, she had been scrutinized over a state auditor’s investigation made public over $294,313 in salary cap overages dating to 2006 and $48,917 in subcontractor fees to her father and predecessor, Larry Ashley, both noted in the county’s 2010 audit.

Since March, State Auditor Stacey Pickering and the county have demanded Ashley-Palmertree repay $661,751 to the county to reconcile six years of cap overpayments and subcontractor fees, an amount that includes interest and a reimbursement of investigative costs.

Penley’s letter asked for 30 days to make up a $5,059 difference between her own debt and amounts owed by her father during his administration. A letter six days earlier from Pickering’s office proposed the arrangement.

“Mr. Ashley and Ms. Palmertree would hope that this can be done prior to the November election,” Penley wrote in the response. “In that direction, they would like to see that the issues were only related to accounting matters which have been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”

Ashley-Palmertree and Pickering seized on that correspondence 20 months ago to prove their respective, opposing cases now before Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas.
Her suit, filed March 20, stated funds stemmed from incorrectly reported civil and criminal fees between 1999 and 2002. Those debts, Pickering countered Monday, compose a moot point because debts noted in the letters were settled, and any fee account overages don’t exist at all.

Ashley-Palmertree’s case also asks the court to weigh in on a 1995 attorney general’s opinion that stated a relative could be paid an amount that, when combined with the clerk’s fees, exceeds the salary cap if the relative was employed before the clerk was first elected. State law already makes the exception, but does not specify between first terms and re-elected terms.

Pickering and the county argue state law in its current form doesn’t define state employees and public officials the same way.

The countersuit asks the court to reiterate its demands from March and require salaries for six deputy circuit clerks be paid exclusively from office funds. Court orders from Warren County Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick on the county to pay the assistants have been in effect since March 14. Amounts transferred in March totaled $29,236 with $6,753 coming from the general fund.

Monday’s countersuit also named CNA Surety, via Western Surety Company, holder of a pair of $100,000 bonds on Ashley-Palmertree, as a defendant. Attorney General Jim Hood is named as a plaintiff in his official capacity to recover funds improperly withheld or spent by a public body in the state.

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