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Magistrate's office employee sues sheriff

Posted: February 8, 2011 5:06 p.m.
Updated: February 9, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A longtime employee in the Kershaw County Magistrate’s Office is suing Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews -- seeking $1 million in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages -- for his comments during a county council meeting last month.

The lawsuit was filed in the Kershaw County Court of Common Pleas Feb. 2.

Delores Leonard, who has worked in the magistrate’s office for more than 25 years, alleges that Matthews wrongly accused her of misusing public funds appropriated for the victims of crime.

During a county council meeting Jan. 5, Matthews made claims that the magistrate’s office had misused spending of county funds, particularly funds designated for victims of crime and victims advocates. Matthews did not name any employees specifically, but Chief Magistrate Judge Gene Hartis at the meeting denied misallocating any funds within his office. Hartis also said he expected an apology from Matthews if it was made clear the magistrate’s office didn’t misuse any money.

Both county staff and at least one councilman have made clear that dollars for the victims advocate fund come with very strict guidelines.

Hartis on Tuesday said he wanted to make clear that Leonard filed the lawsuit on her own behalf, not on behalf of the magistrate’s office.

He maintained that his office has been audited by the state and there have never been any findings of misallocated funds.

In her suit, Leonard claims that Matthews knew the statements he was making were false and he showed a “reckless disregard for the truth.”

According to the lawsuit, Matthews’ statements during the council meeting were “maliciously and deliberately made in reckless disregard for the truth to impugn the integrity of the Kershaw County magistrate’s office in general and the plaintiff, Delores D. Leonard, in particular and to cause her harm and damages,” and that Leonard has “sustained severe and continuing reputational damages, emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and a potential loss of earning capacity in her positions of public employment.”

A statement from Leonard’s attorney, J. Lewis Cromer, reads, “Even when it was made clear the charge was false, Matthews refused to recant or apologize.”

Cromer’s statement goes on to state that his client has “spent her career building an excellent reputation as a public servant. It will not be harmed or destroyed by reckless and callous behavior by any individual, regardless of who they may be.

“With public office comes public responsibility and a duty to be accurate when serious charges are leveled by the chief law enforcement officer of the county -- particularly when they have criminal overtones,” the statement reads.

This isn’t Leonard’s first lawsuit.

She sued Kershaw County in 2005 claiming she didn’t receive compensation for hours she spent “on-call” beyond her 20 part-time hours at the magistrate’s office. That case was thrown out by the circuit court, a decision upheld by an appellate court in 2007.

Cromer is currently involved in another Kershaw County case. He is serving as the attorney for Bob Ingram, who is suing the Kershaw County School District for age discrimination and civil conspiracy.

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