Tax discounts bring firing of Dorchester auditor candidate

Teresa Smoak Messex

An investigation of car tax discounts at the Dorchester County Auditor's Office has cost a political candidate her job.

Auditor Brenda Nix fired Teresa Smoak Messex, an 11-year employee running for auditor, on Friday. An audit showed that Messex and three other workers were giving questionable discounts to reduce tax bills for family and friends, Nix said Tuesday. One of the other workers retired, and the other two also were fired, Nix said.

The audit showed several thousand improper discounts, costing the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nix said. Improper discounts include marking down the vehicle's value by claiming undocumented problems or giving multiple discounts when only one is allowed, Nix said. The discounts can make a difference of several hundred dollars on each bill.

Messex said that if there were any improper discounts given, it was only because clerks took taxpayers at their word and didn't have time to check otherwise. She said she was targeted to undermine her campaign, and the other three because they supported her.

"As far as I know, everybody in the office does bills the same way," Messex said Tuesday. "I've done what I was taught to do for 11 years, and now I'm running for office and it's a problem."

In April, Nix suspended Messex for two weeks without pay for allegedly not following procedure in the sale of a mobile home whose owner had defaulted on tax payments. Messex said she didn't violate any written procedures and the suspension was politically motivated.

Nix hired Dixon Hughes of Summerville for the audit. Nix said she expects the written report later this week. The audit cost between $4,000 and $6,000, she said.

When asked if there is a possibility of criminal charges from the audit, Nix said she had not thought that far ahead yet.

Nix, who has worked in the auditor's office for 30 years, is not running for office. Gov. Mark Sanford appointed her last year to fill the unexpired term of former Auditor Johnette Connelley, who quit to become finance director for the Berkeley Water and Sanitation Authority.

Messex faces Summerville real- estate agent J.J. Messervy in Tuesday's Republican primary. The Republican winner faces no Democratic opposition in November.

"I decided to run for this office because I felt the taxpayers could use a new voice," Messervy said Tuesday. "This audit demonstrates to me that this is an absolute truth. These are serious discrepancies costing our taxpayers thousands of dollars which have been verified by an independent audit. I know that my education and business background will be an asset to this position, and I look forward to working for the citizens of Dorchester County in getting to the bottom of these problems, and crafting solid solutions in moving forward."