When South Carolina chief justice Donald Beatty walked into a mandatory meeting of all probate court judges across the state last week, he dropped a bombshell. Effectively immediately, random audits of all Palmetto State probate courts have been ordered, Beatty told the judges.
These audits will be conducted by an independent accounting firm, the chief justice added.
Probate courts oversee the estates of people who have passed away. They are charged with ensuring all creditors get paid and that assets of the estates are divvied up properly among the appropriate beneficiaries.
Given recent reporting by this media outlet – and the recent highlighting of systemic corruption within South Carolina probate courts via the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga – the audit announcement from Beatty seemed long overdue.
Was it intended to create accountability over this oft-abused system? Or was the chief justice giving probate judges a heads-up in an effort to help them conceal abuses?
While on trial for the murder of his wife and son, disgraced attorney/ convicted killer Alex Murdaugh admitted using the probate court system to steal money from a number of his clients. Among them? Hannah Plyler, a former Murdaugh client who – along with her sister, Alania Plyler-Spohn – was represented by Murdaugh after her mother and brother perished in an automobile accident on Interstate 95 seventeen years ago.
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The federal criminal trial of Russell Laffitte – former chief executive officer of Palmetto State Bank (PSB) and convicted co-conspirator of Murdaugh – shed new light on the financial crimes allegedly committed by Murdaugh in the years leading up to the brutal murders of his wife and son on June 7, 2021. Laffitte was found guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud as well as three counts of misapplying bank funds in U.S. district court in Charleston, South Carolina on November 22, 2022. This August, he was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
During Laffitte’s trial, prosecutors Emily Limehouse, Winston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton made a compelling case against Laffitte on behalf of the government. In meticulous detail, they documented for jurors how he extended eight loans to himself in the amount of $355,000 from the conservatorship of Hannah Plyler.
Laffitte served as conservator for the Plylers and allegedly repaid money taken from Hannah Plyler’s account with conservator and personal representative fees fraudulently obtained from other clients. In addition to these financial crimes, Laffitte also extended to Murdaugh nearly $1 million in “unsecured loans” from Hannah Plyler’s account.
In an interview posted to YouTube prior to the start of the trial, Laffitte claimed these loans were “just an investment vehicle … you know … they were earning a lot more than they were earning sitting in an account.”
The conservatorship for the Plyler sisters was filed in Hampton County probate court and overseen by probate judge Sheila Odom. Last August, Lexington, S.C. attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter filed a lawsuit against Laffitte and the bank on behalf of Hannah Plyler and Alania Plyler-Spohn. Odom was deposed in connection with that lawsuit.
WHAT PROMPTED THE AUDIT?
Why start these random audits now? Sources close to the embattled probate court system tell this news outlet several shady moves involving judges appointing family and friends to serve as conservators, personal representatives and guardians forced the court to take action in the hopes of saving face.
These sources indicate the sudden announcement of the audits was prompted by recent findings in both Oconee and Darlington counties.
In Oconee County, a newly elected probate judge allegedly reported potential misconduct found after he took office and began reviewing files finding irregularities.
Judge Danny Singleton was sworn in on January 3, 2023 – taking the place of interim judge Ashley Rice, who was appointed by chief justice Beatty to fill in for suspended judge Kenneth E. “Kenny” Johns. According to sources, Singleton’s review of probate cases found Rice’s husband – Timothy Rice – had been improperly appointed as the personal representative over an estate and compensated for serving in this role. When we researched for any estates in which Timothy Rice had served in a role of personal representative, we located the estate of Virginia D. Harris who passed away in 2019.
Here is a timeline of what transpired in that case:
June 10, 2019: Timothy Rice Appointed Special Administrator of Virginia Harris’ Estate
An order signed by former probate judge Kenny Johns appointed Rice for the purpose of making funeral arrangements for Harris – an appointment which would terminate after 30 days.
July 24, 2019: Timothy Rice Files a Petition to Become Personal Representative
Rice files a petition to be named personal representative of Virginia Harris’ estate. In the document, it is noted that Harris had no beneficiaries and the only potential intestate heir to her estate was Jerry Mize, who was serving as a guardian ad litem for Harris’ special needs son, James Harris. A fiduciary letter was signed on the same day giving Rice fiduciary power over the estate. Judge Johns also signed a petition for compensation which allotted $11,312.77 to Rice as compensation for his role as personal representative of the estate.
August 15, 2019: Inventory and Appraisal of the Estate of Virginia Harris is Filed
The document filed by Rice indicated the gross value of Harris’s estate as $266,255.41 with no encumbrances.
September 30, 2021: Court Sends a Letter Requesting an Update
Oconee County probate clerk Griselda Godoy sends a letter asking Rice for an update on the Harris estate.
October 13, 2021: Oconee Probate Judge Kenny Johns is Suspended
Johns is suspended by the SC Supreme Court for 18 months for using his Facebook profile to encourage donations to the American Red Cross and for serving improperly as a character witness in an out-of-state legal proceeding.
December 2, 2021: Ashley Rice Appointed Interim Probate Judge
Beatty appoints associate probate judge Ashley Rice as interim probate judge of Oconee County.
March 2, 2022: Rule to Show Cause Filed
Griselda Godoy — with a new title of deputy probate judge — signs an order removing the Harris estate from the docket, stating the proper filings to complete the probate have not been submitted.
June 26, 2023: Estate Reopened and Order of Recusal Signed
New probate judge Singleton signs an order for Timothy Rice to re-open the estate within 30 days on June 26, 2023. The order stated it appeared no financial accounting had been done prior to closing the estate making the closure improper. On the same day, he signed an order of recusal for Ashley Rice to “avoid the appearance of any impropriety.”
July 27, 2023: Extension Granted
Singleton grants Rice an extension to August 28, 2023 for the filing of the final accounting documents for the estate. The petition filed by Rice noted the extension was requested due to him obtaining legal representation and his first meeting with attorneys was on August 7, 2023.
August 10, 2023: 90-Day Extension Requested
Rice files a petition for a 90-day extension stating he needs “additional time to disburse funds from the estate and to file closing documents.” Singleton denied this request, stating the “case appears to be very straight forward” and noted the only things needed should be the funeral bill, proper accounting and closing documents – all things which should be readily available to anyone serving in as the personal representative of the estate.
September 8, 2013: Proposal for Final Distribution Filed
Rice files a proposal for final distribution which proposes the following distributions: $210,563.44 to the South Carolina Treasurer’s unclaimed property division, $2,000 to Hubbard and Gottschall Law for fees and $35 for bank transfer fees.
September 8, 2013: Rice Signs an Affidavit
Rice signs an affidavit stating he agrees and understands a number of things — most notably he will not use any estate assets or monies for his personal obligations.
Appointing a probate judge’s spouse as a personal representative for an estate in which they have no stake – yet received significant compensation – seemingly violates the code of judicial conduct. What’s more concerning is that it seems the court was aware of the estate’s problems for a considerable period but chose to overlook them.
WHAT WILL THE AUDIT UNCOVER?
The announcement of the random probate court audits would certainly appear to be a step in the right direction, but why hasn’t the court been conducting them all along?
And why tip judges off about them now?
The announcement of the audits came just one day after the family of Georgia “Jo” Hanna – who is at the heart of a high-profile probate case in Florence county – saw a petition for writ of prohibition in their case controversially denied. The order — signed by chief justice Beatty — dismissed the petition, claiming it was moot.
The original petition — filed by Columbia-based attorney Tucker Player on May 23, 2023 — against Darlington County listed several of the “troubling aspects” of the state’s probate court system.
- A disregard for open and obvious conflicts of interest created when judges that formerly presided over cases are of counsel for law firms associated with those cases.
- Open and obvious ex parte communications between the court and counsel.
- Records revealing judges are regularly awarded power of attorney over their constituents.
Player’s motion included examples of other alleged violations involving Darlington County probate judge Marvin Lawson — who was assigned by Beatty to oversee the Hanna’s case — including property transfers he considers questionable.
For example, an exhibit contained a deed of distribution in which Lawson ordered the deed to be issued – to himself. He further noted the witnesses to this deed of distribution were Lawson’s secretary and Darlington County treasurer Jeffrey Robinson.
Robinson, incidentally, has been appointed as a personal representative, a conservator, a trustee or a special administrator over numerous estates estate in Darlington County no less than nine times in the last three years. According to Player, though, the county treasurer “has not filed any fiduciary letters of conservatorship” with the Darlington register of deeds office.
“Either both Lawson and his preferred referral for conservatorships are completely ignorant of the law and requirements or they are trying to hide something,” Player said.
In attempting to locate fiduciary letters within Darlington County, records of known appointments of individuals serving as conservators do not appear to have been filed as required by law. FOIA requests to obtain fiduciary letters – or even a list of individuals appointed by the court in that role – have been repeatedly denied.
Count on this media outlet to continue investigating South Carolina’s probate courts – and to continue pushing for transparency, accountability and fairness within this system.
To the extent the supreme court’s decision to randomly audit the system is a move toward these goals, we will support it. However, the prior failure of the court to monitor the system – combined with Beatty’s curious advance notification to judges of these random audits – does not instill much in the way of confidence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at email@example.com.
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