The former Berkeley County School District chief financial officer who admitted stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the district pleaded guilty to embezzlement and other charges in federal court Tuesday.
Brantley D. Thomas III, 61, faces up to 300 years in prison and more than $5 million in fines on the federal charges. He will be sentenced after his presentencing report is completed, which could take a few months.
He was indicted on 20 counts by a federal grand jury in December. Around the same time, an additional 15 counts from a state grand jury dated Oct. 17 and Nov. 15 were unsealed.
"There were no surprises today," district lawyer Josh Whitley said after the 30-minute hearing in front of U.S. District Judge David Norton. "We look forward to his sentencing, and we look forward to working with the state authorities on their half of the investigation."
Thomas and his lawyer, Matt Hubbell, declined to comment after the hearing.
The total amount Thomas is alleged to have stolen is more than $800,000, but Thomas may have taken more than that, State Grand Jury Section Chief Attorney General Creighton Waters said last month.
Among the funds that Thomas took were federal grants intended for special education students, officials said.
Thomas, who started work at the district in 1993, oversaw all of its finances, including a $260 million general fund. His was one of its highest paid employees, with a salary of $130,500.
He was fired Feb. 7, a day after district officials learned of a probe into district finances by Wells Fargo and the FBI.
The federal indictments charge Thomas with one count of fraud and embezzlement from a federally funded program, nine counts of money laundering and 10 counts of "honest services wire fraud," which involved receiving kickbacks for awarding insurance policy contracts to specific companies.
The state indictments charge Thomas with 14 counts of embezzlement and one count of forgery.
On Tuesday, the court heard details of several methods Thomas used in his schemes, including overpaying vendors through school district accounts, then depositing refund checks into his own account.
"Thomas would then use stolen money to pay for personal expenses such as a membership at a private club and for foreign travel," according to the federal indictment.
Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant allowed Thomas, who has no prior record, to remain free on a $50,000 unsecured bond. He was also required to surrender his passport, is barred from leaving the state without permission and must attend substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling if deemed necessary.
He was given house arrest and released on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond during a state court hearing two days later. Thomas is staying with his mother in downtown Charleston and can leave the house only for church, work, medical appointments and to visit his sick father in Cainhoy. He must remain at home from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
He has agreed to waive federal grand jury proceedings and plead guilty to the charges. At that time, he will pay a $2,000 assessment, $100 for each offense, and his plea agreement will become binding.
The agreement calls for Thomas to make full restitution, which may also include restitution to "each and every identifiable victim who may have been harmed by his scheme." So far, he has repaid almost $470,000, his lawyer said. About $135,000 was seized from Thomas' bank account in February, and he paid $247,251 in restitution on March 9 and $86,025 on Dec. 4, according to Hubbell.
The federal charges are felonies. The embezzlement charge and nine money laundering charges each carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The 10 wire fraud charges each carry a penalty of up to 20 years and $250,000, according to the agreement.
The government will ask for a reduced sentence if Thomas' cooperation aids in the prosecution of another person, according to the agreement.
After the hearing, Whitley said he believes other individuals will be indicted in the case.
In state court, Thomas faces up to 135 years in prison.