Editor's note: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction. Bulloch County Clerk of Courts Teresa Tucker pleaded to two felony counts of violation of oath by public officer. Because of a reporter's mistake, front-page articles Tuesday and Wednesday incorrectly stated that she pleaded to misdemeanors. A corrected article on the plea agreement appears in Friday's print edition. The Statesboro Herald regrets the errors.
Bulloch County Clerk of Courts Teresa Tucker and deputy clerk Sherri Akins each pleaded reached plea deals Monday.
Both face probation and restitution payments, but no jail time, after Bulloch County Superior Court Judge William
Woodrum Jr. handed down sentences, taking recommendations from the state, as per a plea deal Tucker and Akins’s attorneys reached with prosecutors.
Tucker, who has been on voluntary suspension since being indicted in July along with Akins and three other clerk’s office employees – deputy clerk Leatha Deloach and former deputy clerks Marion Puckett Williams and Amanda Kay Smith – is expected to come to a resignation agreement today with the Bulloch County Commission.
All five were originally indicted July 8 on charges of felony theft by conversion and related offenses after a nearly three-year-long query by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The probe followed citizen complaints of improper practices in the Bulloch County Clerk of Courts office. The complaints came after the office received numerous reports of people claiming their driver’s licenses were suspended in spite of their having paid the traffic fines, said Greg McConnell, the chief assistant district attorney for the Eastern Judicial Circuit, based in Savannah.
The Eastern Judicial Circuit DA’s Office prosecuted the case because the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit DA’s Office recused itself, citing a close working relationship with the Bulloch County Clerk of Courts office.
Akins, who was working as a deputy clerk after her retirement from the clerk of court position after more than 40 years, was represented by attorney Sims Lanier. She pled “nolo contendere,” meaning “no contest,” to malfeasance in office, a misdemeanor charge.
Original charges of felony theft by conversion and violation of oath by public officer were dropped, and Woodrum sentenced Akins to a year’s probation and restitution of $6,000.
Akins’ original indictment was quashed Aug. 28, when Woodrum granted a motion filed by Lanier in which he claimed
Akins’ original indictment was “tainted” because Tucker and her attorney, Daniel B. Snipes, were allowed in the courtroom during grand jury proceedings and Tucker was allowed to present evidence when neither Akins nor the other defendants were allowed to do so.
Akins was re-indicted in October.
Tucker, originally charged with theft by conversion and violation of oath of public office, pleaded guilty Monday to two felony counts of violation of oath of office.
Woodrum accepted the state’s recommendation for her as well, sentencing Tucker to 10 years probation, $6,000 restitution, and a $1,000 fine.
McConnell told the court Monday that evidence showed the Clerk of Courts office was responsible for faulty accounting practices because several payments of traffic fines never being recorded. When the number of such complaints became unusual, a clerk’s office employee filed a complaint based on suspicions money was being mishandled, he said.
The investigation revealed the clerk’s office also had an “overage bag,” where money received, but unaccounted for regarding where it belonged, was held.
Clerk’s office employees were allowed to borrow from this bag, leaving personal checks or “IOU” notes, McConnell said.
During the investigation, Akins admitted using the funds to pay for business trips and expenses as well as borrowing cash for a personal trip, McConell said. Akins said she repaid what she borrowed.
Tucker also admitted during the investigation to having allowed the use of the “overage bag” money for loans to office employees, for reasons varying from needing lunch money to one employee borrowing cash to pay for a wedding, McConnell said.
Tucker also admitted to having borrowed from the funds herself, he said.
Lanier told the court this practice, while inappropriate, had been going on long before Akins or Tucker took office and was “inherited and passed on.”
All money “borrowed” has been replaced, and Akins “did not deprive the citizens of Bulloch County of any money,” Lanier said. Akins, whose husband, Herman Akins, died earlier this year, pleaded nolo contendere instead of facing trial because of the pending legal expense, as well as the emotional and stressful toll a trial would take, Lanier said.
“I’ve never stolen 1 cent of public money,” Akins said as she read a prepared statement to the court. “I just want it over.”
Tucker prepared a statement as well.
“I have never committed any theft, never enriched myself from public service or taken anything of value that did not belong to me while working in the office of the Bulloch County Clerk of Courts,” she said.
Her plea arose from an admission that she “… made mistakes in the management of the office.”
Deloach, Williams and Smith each pleaded guilty Sept. 10 to theft by conversion. Under plea deals between McConnell and the defendants’ attorneys that were similar to those regarding Akins and Tucker, the other three were each sentenced to 10 years probation and must pay $6,000 restitution to Bulloch County.
After Tucker’s expected resignation, county officials will decide on the next step regarding filling the clerk’s position. Former GBI agent Charles Sikes is serving as the interim clerk.
Snipes said Tucker’s resignation is voluntary although she “is not disqualified from the office by law.” Pending the county commissioners’ acceptance, she will “tender a letter of resignation” to Gov. Nathan Deal.
Akins’ retirement package after her resignation from the county office will not be affected by the nolo contendere plea, Lanier said.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.