This story has been updated with comments from Beth Calhoun.
Horry County Auditor-elect Beth Calhoun said she did not request an investigation that may have led to her termination as an employee with the auditor’s office this week.
Horry County Auditor Lois Eargle fired Calhoun Wednesday, more than seven months before Calhoun can be sworn in to lead the office she won this month.
Calhoun and deputy auditor Judy Clardy met with Horry County Sheriff’s Office officials on July 7 and told them about a possible larceny, according to a sheriff’s office report. However, Calhoun and sheriff’s officials said Calhoun did not request that the sheriff’s office investigate the crime she described to an investigator.
Calhoun said she went to the sheriff’s office to support Clardy, who was reporting that some items from her office were stolen.
After an investigation, no criminal charges were made by the sheriff’s office.
“I did not initiate a complaint,” Calhoun said. “I simply walked over, as Mrs. Clardy asked me to do, and as I would do for anyone. I don’t have anything missing. It’s not my investigation. I am not the complainant.”
Calhoun said her termination was possibly related to the investigation.
“If it had not been for this, it would have been for something else,” she said.
Clardy resigned Monday.
Calhoun said she will spend the remaining months before taking over as auditor focusing on what she would like to accomplish in that office.
“I hope I will be left alone to do that,” she said.
Eargle declined to discuss the reasons behind her decision to fire Calhoun, but she said the larceny investigation was unnecessary.
“This situation should have never went this far,” Eargle said.
Clardy could not be reached for comment.
Sheriff Phillip Thompson confirmed that his office had investigated the matter and found no evidence of a crime. Criminal investigations are typically the purview of the county police department or the local agency over the jurisdiction where the incident occurred. Thompson said his staff was asked to look into the situation by another county official.
“That’s why we did it,” he said.
The sheriff's office report states that Clardy and Calhoun told sheriff’s officials that they suspected a former employee of the auditor’s office, Sandra Beckwith, had stolen personal items from Clardy’s desk drawers. Clardy said she was missing a letter of recommendation for Calhoun, her will and IRS letters to Clardy’s 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. Although Calhoun won the general election on Nov. 3, Eargle will be the auditor through the remainder of this term. Calhoun's firing will not impact her ability to assume elected office in July.
When she first met with the sheriff’s office, 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, according to the report.
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 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, noting 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.
Apart from the sheriff's office report, email records indicate Eargle had raised the possibility of firing staff in recent months. In a Sept. 22 email with the subject line "I AM THE HORRY COUNTY AUDITOR," Eargle wrote to county department heads that her office did not have the authority to write county checks.
"The Treasurer issues the refunds because the Treasurer is the keeper of the county funds," Eargle wrote. "I want to make it clear that I, Dr. M. Lois Eargle, will be the Horry County Auditor until June 30, 2021 and I took an oath to uphold the duties bestowed upon me by the citizen of Horry County. The Auditor is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the duplicate list of real and personal property tax list in the county. I’ve worked very hard to maintain a close working relationship and reputation with the other county departments and the citizens and I won’t hesitate to dismiss any of my staff that jeopardizes my legacy prior to my departure. I appreciate each and everyone of you for all you do."
Clardy later followed up with an email to Eargle, the county assessor and the county treasurer asking for clarification.
"Staff has been asking how to proceed as it affects our normal procedure and our day to day operation," Clardy wrote. "How do you want staff to obtain the approvals necessary for the refunds? If possible, we need clarification right away due to the fact that we have walk-in customers daily. We need to know the process you want staff to follow to be in compliance with your directive."
When reached Wednesday, Beckwith said she was blindsided by the larcey allegations this month and didn’t think she'd had any problems with Clardy.
“I was taken aback,” she said. “I really didn’t see this coming at all.”
Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones said Beckwith joined her office as a project coordinator on June 27. She said the treasurer's office, which handles tax collections, needed the help and the transfer from the auditor's office had been decided long before the primary.
Jones said her staff was supposed to start developing a new online payment system this month, but the process has been delayed because she was asked to meet with the sheriff's office last week about this case.
"This was really a waste of county resources," Jones said. "I was in shock."
County spokeswoman Kelly Moore declined to comment on the matter beyond confirming Calhoun’s termination and Clardy’s resignation.