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FBI investigating Williamsburg County clerk who gave herself a $30K raise

Clerk of Court Sharon Staggers.jpg (copy) (copy) (copy)

Williamsburg County Clerk of Court Sharon Staggers is sworn into office in January 2021 after her reelection in 2020. File/Kingstree News

The FBI has joined the months-long criminal investigation into a Pee Dee politician who gave herself a $30,000 raise late last year from a pot of federal money she controls, The Post and Courier has learned.

Meanwhile, Williamsburg County Clerk of Court Sharon Staggers has lawyered up, hiring federal prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Jim May and Greenville trial lawyer Matthew Richardson to represent her in the ongoing probe.

"Mrs. Staggers is cooperating with the investigation and looks forward to having all of the facts reviewed and disclosed," May and Richardson wrote in a June 22 statement.

Staggers, a Democrat first elected in 2012, has been under investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division since at least March 7. That’s when The Post and Courier first reported on the clerk’s controversial decision to dip into a little-known and scarcely regulated fund meant to enhance her office’s child support enforcement efforts.

But federal authorities and prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of South Carolina have become involved in the case, as well, the newspaper has learned.

Little else is known about the joint state-and-federal probe. Such investigations are usually kept secret, with no public announcements until charges are either filed or the case is closed.

FBI spokesman Kevin Wheeler declined to comment for this story. So did the Department of Social Services, the state agency that runs South Carolina’s child support program.

Staggers has kept a low profile during the investigation, repeatedly declining to comment for news stories and insisting she will tell her side in due time.

Her pay hike ruffled feathers in rural Williamsburg, infuriating fellow officials and the public in an area where the median household income is less than $32,500 and more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty. The raise ballooned her pay to more than $92,900, nearly surpassing that of the county sheriff.

Staggers had been unhappy with her nearly $62,000 annual salary, even though it already outpaced what her peers in similar counties earned, county officials told The Post and Courier.

She authorized the $30,000 raise for herself only after Williamsburg County Council rejected her requests for more pay through the normal process — the annual county budget.

Staggers thought she deserved more money because she fulfilled the duties of both a clerk of court and a register of deeds, roles that are split into two jobs in larger counties. However, many of her peers in smaller counties like Williamsburg — population 31,000 — handle both roles for less pay than Staggers was previously making.

Authorities are thought to be probing whether Staggers and other clerks of court can legally direct federal child support enforcement money to themselves.

The money is supposed to be used strictly to improve child support enforcement programs. 

Clerks have used the money in the past to purchase new copiers, upgrade courtroom audio-visual equipment, travel to conferences, hire temporary employees for special projects and reward employees who go the extra mile with one-time bonuses.

Records show Staggers provided Williamsburg County officials with a 2015 email from DSS advising the state’s 46 clerks of court that they could use Title IV-D money to pay salaries for employees in their office, with some exceptions. It did not clearly say whether clerks could boost their own pay with the money.

SLED investigators met with DSS officials in March to discuss the case.

Staggers, a Democrat, is not up for reelection until 2024. But there are ample signs voters aren’t happy with the pay hike.

Williamsburg County Democrats voted out of office their most powerful official, Supervisor Tiffany Cooks, in the June 14 primary in part because many voters blamed Cooks for not stopping the pay hike.

Cooks previously told The Post and Courier she feared Staggers might sue the cash-strapped county if Cooks tried to block the raise. Still, her challenger defeated her by a whopping 23 percentage points.

Brandon Alter of The Kingstree News contributed to this report.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to averywilks93@protonmail.com.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.