An Horry County Government worker filed a slander lawsuit Wednesday against former deputy auditor Judy Clardy and auditor-elect Beth Calhoun, the two women who told a sheriff’s office investigator that they suspected the county employee had stolen items from Clardy’s office, according to court records.
Sandra Beckwith, a project coordinator in the treasurer’s office, asserts in the lawsuit that both Clardy and Calhoun damaged her reputation and caused her emotional pain. The sheriff’s office investigation turned up no evidence that Beckwith committed a crime.
“The Defendants did secretly agree between themselves to attempt to have the Plaintiff charged with a crime,” Beckwith’s complaint states. “The Plaintiff suffered special damages including reputational damages, emotional distress, upsetedness, embarrassment and shock including harm to her reputation and being held up to public scorn.”
Beckwith referred all questions about the lawsuit to her attorney, Gene Connell. Connell declined to comment.
Neither Clardy nor Calhoun could be reached Wednesday afternoon.
Clardy resigned from the auditor’s office on Nov. 16. Calhoun was fired two days later.
Calhoun worked at the auditor’s office for about 20 years and was serving as the assistant deputy auditor when she was terminated by Auditor Lois Eargle. Eargle has not said why she fired Calhoun — she also declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday — but the decision came after Eargle learned about the larceny allegations contained in a sheriff’s office report.
The report states that on July 7 Clardy and Calhoun met with sheriff’s office staff and provided them with information about Beckwith, a former auditor’s office employee, stealing items from Clardy's desk. Clardy said she was missing a letter of recommendation for Calhoun, her will and IRS letters to her family, among other items.
Beckwith had moved from the auditor’s office to the treasurer’s office after Calhoun won the Republican Primary for auditor in June. Eargle, who has held the post for nearly 30 years, did not seek reelection and endorsed Calhoun’s opponent, R.A. Johnson. The auditor handles the county's tax billing and the office's terms are based on the fiscal year, which ends June 30. Calhoun’s firing will not impact her ability to take office once Eargle’s term ends.
The lawsuit states that Clardy and Calhoun made false statements to law enforcement and those statements were then reported in the media.
“The Defendants Clardy and Calhoun uttered slanderous statements about Plaintiff Beckwith and continued to utter slanderous statements that Plaintiff was a thief,” the complaint states. “The Defendants are liable to the Plaintiff under the Doctrine of ‘Slander Per Se’ which states that slander exists when defamatory statements are made which accuses the plaintiff of a crime. … Further, South Carolina follows the rule that accusing one of a crime is actionable as a matter of law.”
Beckwith maintains that Clardy and Calhoun were negligent in that they reported an incident to police that didn’t happen, they failed to investigate the matter before going to the police, they made unsubstantiated rumors about Beckwith and persisted with the investigation when it was obvious Beckwith was not guilty of a crime, according to the lawsuit.
Beckwith is seeking damages for embarrassment, harassment and mental suffering.
Calhoun’s account of the meeting at the sheriff’s office differs somewhat from the one detailed in the sheriff’s office report.
The week of her firing, Calhoun told myhorrynews.com that she played a minor role in the investigation.
“Judy did the talking,” she said in November. “I told them I was there for support. … It’s not my report.”
Calhoun has said that when Clardy discovered she was missing personal items from her office, she turned to Calhoun for help.
“She was very, very upset and she didn’t know what to do about it,” Calhoun said. “I think she chose to go to the sheriff’s department because they are in our building and all we had to do was walk across through the atrium to go talk to somebody. If she had not done it and somebody had done something with her information, they would have probably said, ‘Why didn’t you report it? Why didn’t you tell somebody?’”
When they met with the deputies, Calhoun said the sheriff’s office staff asked them if they knew anyone who would steal from Clardy.
“She explained the whole situation,” Calhoun said. “And they said, ‘Do you know of anyone who would do such a thing?’ And she said, ‘In my 27 years here, we’ve never had an incident like this. No, I do not.’ She said, ‘I will tell you there was an incident that occurred in our Myrtle Beach office that staff reported to me of some things missing.’ She went on to explain that situation and how it went down. They looked at me and I said, ‘Well, when I came back to work, the same incident was reported to me.’ And that was it. That was how it all occurred. … All I did was walk over there with her so she didn’t have to go by herself.”
When she first met with the sheriff’s staff, Clardy said she suspected Beckwith had entered her office after business hours on a weekday or over a weekend and taken the items, according to the report.
Lt. Chip Squires, who investigated the matter for the sheriff’s office, wrote in the report that investigators had reviewed surveillance video of the Horry County Government and Justice Center looking for footage of individuals matching Beckwith’s description. He could not find any evidence of Beckwith entering the office during non-business hours.
When the sheriff's office told Clardy there was no evidence of Beckwith going into the building on a weekend or after hours, she said it was possible Eargle had given Beckwith the auditor’s access card, the report stated. However, there was no record of Eargle or Beckwith’s card being used during non-business hours.
When confronted with this information, Clardy gave the sheriff’s office names of other auditor’s office employees who had stories about Beckwith taking items from desk drawers.
She provided five names, then specifically asked that the investigator not interview a sixth worker because she was a “mole” for Beckwith, according to the report.
The investigator spoke with an employee who said Beckwith had taken paperwork or other items out of her desk on two occasions.
In one instance in 2018, Beckwith removed U.S. Coast Guard vessel paperwork from an employee’s desk and later asked the employee about its importance while holding it in her hand, according to the sheriff's office report. In 2019, she took a folder off the worker’s desk that contained personal photos and training records. The employee told the sheriff’s office that Beckwith asked her about her training and told her she should hang one of the photos.
However, the employee acknowledged that her desk was in the common area and Squires noted that she “would not have any right to privacy in a work environment where items taken by a superior were not securely stored in a locked compartment.” Squires wrote that he could not draw a correlation between the employee’s account and Clardy’s complaint.
“[The investigator] believes that the facts provided in this case do not reach the level of probable cause for prosecution and in fact lack the merit of reaching the reasonable suspicion threshold,” the report stated.
The investigator’s findings were reported to Chief Deputy Tom Fox on Aug. 7, and the sheriff’s office decided to go over the case with Clardy, according to the report. The next day, Clardy texted Squires.
“Things are so very bad in the Auditor's office,” she wrote. “Did you find enough information about Sandy going through [sic] employee’s desk? I desperately need to know this.”
Squires replied that he and an administrator would meet with her on the next business day.
“I have received word that I may be terminated on Monday,” Clardy wrote.
Squires then called Clardy and explained there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Beckwith or Eargle had gone into her office and removed any items.
“[Squires] explained probable cause to Clardy to which she advised that we should be able to make the charge based on her telling me that Beckwith did it,” the report stated.
Squires told her that the sheriff’s office couldn’t make a criminal charge based on her suspicions, according to the report.
Clardy later emailed Squires' supervisors asking to meet with them. She told Fox and Capt. Dowe Enzor that Squires was telling other people about the investigation and could not be trusted, according to the report.
But Squires continued to investigate. He raised questions about an insurance document that Clardy claimed had been taken from her office, the report stated. Clardy said an email sent from Eargle had the document in it. However, after consulting with the county's IT staff, Squires wrote that there was “reasonable suspicion” that Clardy could have printed out the document and provided it as evidence that someone else had stolen it, scanned it and emailed it.
In an interview last month, Calhoun said she and Clardy couldn’t definitively tell the deputies that Beckwith had stolen from Clardy because they didn’t know she had. She said they had simply heard stories from other people.
“All we can say is that’s what we were told,” Calhoun said then. “We didn’t have any proof that it had happened.”
Calhoun maintains it was Clardy who stayed in touch with the sheriff’s office after the investigation began.
“Whatever happened beyond that point with Mrs. Clardy and the sheriff’s department, that’s her business,” she said. “It’s not my issue, but I went with her because she asked me to.”
Sheriff’s office officials confirmed that Calhoun participated in the interview, but they said most of the concerns came from Clardy because she was the one who reported missing items.
“The primary complaint came from Judy, but Beth did participate in about 5% of the conversation,” said Fox, the chief deputy. “We asked them both questions when they brought the complaint in. … Beth was basically a bystander.”
Although Clardy resigned, Calhoun has said she would not voluntarily step down because she doesn’t believe she did anything wrong. She contends she would have eventually been fired regardless of whether the investigation had happened.
“They just don’t want me there,” she said last month. “If it wasn’t this, it would have been something else.”
County spokeswoman Kelly Moore said the county has no records of any disciplinary reports involving Clardy, Calhoun or Beckwith.
As assistant deputy auditor, Calhoun’s salary was just over $52,000, according to public records obtained through an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request. Clardy’s salary was nearly $79,000. Both women received overwhelmingly favorable reviews on their most recent evaluations.
Beckwith also had mostly positive comments in her evaluations. None of Beckwith's performance reviews mentioned anything about reports of theft.