WOODBINE, Ga. - Camden County Probate Judge-elect Shirley P. Wise pleaded guilty Wednesday to theft from the office, resigned her assistant judgeship and advised the governor she will not take office Jan. 1.
Wise, 56, pleaded guilty to felony charges of theft by taking, theft by deception and violating her oath of office, all felonies.
Superior Court Judge David L. Cavender accepted a plea agreement offered by special prosecutor Brian M. Rickman, district attorney of the Mountain Judicial Circuit, under which Wise will serve seven years on probation on the theft counts and five years’ probation on the violation of oath of office count, all to be served concurrently.
Wise also must pay a $1,000 fine and make $5,500 restitution to the county.
She is also forbidden from holding any public office during her probation.
Rickman told Cavender that under Georgia law, Probate Judge Martin Gillette was the victim on the theft-by-deception charge because she took fees for filing vital records between December 2008 and May 31, 2010, that should have gone to Gillette. But Gillette did not want Wise prosecuted and would not help in the prosecution, Rickman said.
Wise could nonetheless be charged for violating state law, he told Cavender.
The theft-by-deception charge arose from the hiring of Probate Court employee Patsy Kennedy to reorganize the office’s vital records vault to increase the capacity.
Between May 2009 and August 2010, Kennedy did the work and billed the county $11,250 as a contractor, Aberdeen Recording Service and Supply, although she already was an employee.
Wise got $5,500 of the money paid to Kennedy.
The violation of the oath of office stemmed from the criminal activity while she was Gillette’s assistant judge.
The guilty plea also was part of a consent agreement that will end the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s formal charges against Wise of violating judicial cannons.
The commission, which has the power to remove judges, had leveled 11 formal charges against Wise in a Dec. 7 amended complaint.
The charges assert that Wise induced a county employee to submit false invoices to the county and that she then received illegal kickbacks totalling $5,500 from the paid invoices.
Wise also instructed a court employee to cut Gillette’s signature from a document and affix it to another he had not signed and, in one case, to forgo Gillette’s signature altogether, the commission said.
When she ran successfully for the office in July, she used county property and employees in her campaign, the commission said.
Instead of performing weddings herself, she referred couples to for-profit wedding facilities, some of which she allowed to operate as satellite courthouses, the commission charged.
Wise also pre-signed marriage license applications and other documents and delivered them to those for-profit operations for their use, the commission said.
She accepted cash payments for vital record filings and kept the money, later shredding or destroying the original receipts that were evidence of the payments, the commission charged.
As she entered her pleas, Wise seemed to be losing her composure and a couple of times paused before responding “Yes sir’’ to Cavender’s inquiry on whether she had committed the offenses as outlined by Rickman.
Her lawyer, Jim Stein, said she had brought a check for $5,500 to cover the restitution and, at Wise’s insistence, Stein said Wise would also pay $1,355 to settle her fine with its surcharges added.
She was escorted to the Camden County jail afterward and booked. She left the jail at 10:40 a.m., less than two hours after Cavender opened the hearing.
The conviction presents a problem for Gillette, who had intended to retire Dec. 31 for a job that paid him $91,437 a year based partly on his longevity. As his assistant, Wise earned $38,973, but would have been paid about $64,000 her first year in office.
Gillette said County Attorney Brent Green is researching what comes next, but that he and Wise, who came to work for the court when he took office 20 years ago, are the only ones certified to do certain work.
“I lost my chief clerk, I lost my assistant judge, I lost my election manager, I lost my chief [vital records] register all at one lick,’’ Gillette said.
With Wise’s resignation, he may be the only one left in the county qualified to run the special election in March to replace Wise, who defeated lawyer Robbie Morgan in July.
“There’s only me and Shirley certified,’’ he said. “I’m obligated morally to conduct that special election.”
Asked what will happen Jan. 1, Gillette said he’ll probably still be in office.
“I’m going to do what’s asked of me until we have a sitting probate judge,’’ he said.
Gillette noted ruefully that Wise’s problems were compounded by her appointment to the assistant judgeship, which added another set of rules for her to follow.
As for the money that the JQC described as kickbacks, Gillette said that he believes that Kennedy owed Wise money and that she was repaying her from payments for reorganizing the records.
Gillette said that Wise came to work as his chief clerk the day he took office 20 years ago.
Asked about the quality of her work, Gillette said, “Excellent. This office has made tremendous progress under her management.”