The suspicion of "sophisticated, long term embezzlement by a high-ranking deputy" was discovered by an auditor probing canceled checks with a magnifying glass. That was among the findings that drove Dorchester County Council to expand its audit of the Sheriff's Office.

Among the preliminary findings made by the independent auditors hired by council are:

-- Nearly $200,000 in "fees or commissions" was paid over two years to the Dorchester County Detention Center by a telephone company that handled inmate collect calls.

-- Nearly $50,000 of $88,000 in checks written at the jail commissary was not deposited to the detention center account.

--"Several thousand dollars" from a bank account that handles fees charged to inmates for services such as haircuts went to a detention center employee Christmas party and more than $9,000 to Wal-Mart gift cards as Christmas bonuses.

Those findings in an audit report by Rachlin Cohen & Holtz convinced council in a unanimous vote to pay as much as $60,000 for an audit originally billed at $35,000. The Post and Courier received the documents Wednesday after filing Freedom of Information Act requests with county officials.

County Council hired the auditor in August to look into the last two years of office and detention center records to find out why Sheriff Ray Nash has been going over budget. It expanded the audit this month after auditors discovered tens of thousands of dollars missing from the jail fund. Nash blamed his former jail chief, Capt. Arnold Pastor. State Law Enforcement Division officers are investigating. The auditors are assisting. No charges have been filed.

Council wants to know how much money was generated by charges and fees at the jail and how much money allegedly has been stolen. It also wants better answers to questions about the money paid to vendors that the auditors found the Sheriff's Office had close ties to.

The amount of money involved and the allegations of criminal mishandling have re-stoked a long controversy over money the office collects and disburses independent of its county budget, as Nash readies to run again for the office next year. The issue haunted the campaign four years ago.

"It's apparent to me why we've been having problems. There is no fiscal management. There is no fiscal responsibility," Councilman Chris Murphy said Wednesday. "Whatever money is being generated by that jail, that money should be going into the general fund. It shouldn't be going into a slush fund to be divvied up to whomever the sheriff sees fit."

Nash said Wednesday he also had just received his copy of the preliminary audit findings. He agreed the office should have had better internal controls.

"We need to account for our funds at a higher level than in the past," Nash said. "We take responsibility for it. I take responsibility for it. I've said that so many times I've lost count. We have taken steps to rectify it. We are rectifying it. If we erred, we erred in putting too much trust in one person," he said.

"It is public money, there's no question about that," Nash said. But it's not tax revenue money. Collecting fees and maintaining separate accounts for them is common detention center practice across the country, he said.

The office accounts were audited by the county every year, he said. It took an auditor using a magnifying glass to dig deep enough to find the alleged embezzlement. "We always got a clean bill of health, so we thought everything was fine. We need to tighten up procedures. We hope to regain public trust."

The audit could end up costing even more. Jose I. Marrero, a partner with Rachlin Cohen & Holtz, noted in a letter to the county that there could be additional charges if auditors are asked for services such as preparing or giving expert testimony in court.