Brantley Thomas (copy)

Brantley Thomas. Provided

ST. GEORGE — The man at the heart of one South Carolina's largest embezzlement schemes will spend more than 16 years behind bars.

The former chief financial officer of the Berkeley County School District was sentenced to 11 years in state prison Friday after pleading guilty to 37 counts.

That comes on top of a previous sentence of more than five years in federal prison.

A circuit judge handed down the sentence to 62-year-old Brantley D. Thomas III, a longtime and once-respected district employee in one of the state's fastest-growing counties.

Thomas will serve the state sentence immediately after he finishes serving 63 months in federal prison. His combined sentences add up to 16¼ years behind bars — about the same amount of time during which he stole from the district.

Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson also ordered Thomas to pay nearly $1 million in restitution to the school district.

The state and U.S. Attorney’s Office found that Thomas had stolen $1.3 million in total, said Assistant Deputy Attorney General Creighton Waters. The restitution amounts ordered by both offices overlap, and Thomas is ordered to pay back the full amount.

The federal government had discovered approximately $328,000 taken in its investigation. The S.C. Attorney General's Office found $936,000, which was included in the federal announcement in February. The state grand jury has located other amounts since the federal announcement.

The state counts included 24 charges for embezzlement of more than $10,000; eight embezzlement charges less than $10,000; two charges of forgery; one charge of misconduct in office; one breach of trust; and one money-laundering charge.

The Attorney General's Office said after the initial investigation that Thomas' misconduct amounted to the largest public embezzlement scheme in recent history and possibly the largest ever.

Prosecutors also said Thomas stole more than $36,000 from Jackson Davenport Vision Center, a Charleston eye care business that employed him as a bookkeeper while he was out on bail in 2017 and 2018. He was also ordered to pay them back.

"The more we looked, the more we found," Waters said. "I'm sure there is still some out there."

Waters detailed 16 years of Thomas' embezzlement, the first of which was found in bank records from Sept. 11, 2001.

He also gave some more details about the embezzlement schemes.

For example, a 2015 check for $25,000 was supposed to be used for legal services for the district. It appeared to be used around the same time that Thomas took his whole family on a vacation to the Cayman Islands.

School district attorney Josh Whitley said Friday's hearing was a powerful moment for his colleagues.

"You saw real justice (today)," Whitley said. "At first, they were talking about probation. ... No one would have thought he would see 16 years in prison."

Thomas oversaw a nearly $260 million general fund with Berkeley County School District. With a salary of $130,500, he was among the district’s highest paid employees, and he also collected a pension during the final years of his career.

One of the conditions in Thomas' plea deal was that he wouldn't collect his pension; it will be paid back to the school district instead.

The FBI’s investigation revealed Thomas stole from the district on at least 45 occasions using several methods that included overpaying vendors through school district accounts and then depositing refund checks into his personal account.

Some of the stolen funds were federal grants intended for special-education students.

Federal authorities said Thomas also took at least $32,000 in bribes and kickbacks for awarding the district’s insurance policy contracts to specific companies.

"He knows he caused a lot of hurt," said Leon Stavrinakis, Thomas' defense attorney. "A lot of that has been caused in his own personal world."

Thomas, who was wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt in court, made a formal apology to the courtroom filled with his family members, friends and Berkeley County school officials.

Stavrinakis said since the case began, Thomas has experienced a lot of "trauma in his life." Since being investigated, Thomas got divorced, had struggles with alcohol and faced numerous medical conditions, such as dizziness and fainting spells since he has been in custody, Stavrinakis said.

"I'd like to apologize to the court," Thomas said. "I know I've caused a lot of pain ... a lot of it at home."

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter.