SAVANNAH, Ga. - The court clerk of Clinch County pleaded guilty in federal court to making $73,286 in illegal payments to himself and other county employees as ordered by the chief judge of Georgia's Alapaha Judicial Circuit.
Daniel Leccese, who resigned as court clerk Friday, is the first person to be prosecuted in a federal investigation of secret payments ordered by Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III that were kept off the county books and never reported to tax authorities.
Judge Blitch, the chief judge of the five-county Alapaha circuit in southern Georgia, was not named in court documents outlining the charges against Mr. Leccese. FBI agents executed a search warrant on the judge's office in Homerville, the county seat, on June 26.
Court documents say Mr. Leccese had six unnamed co-conspirators, including one who ordered the illegal payments Sept. 13, 2001. That's the date Judge Blitch signed a court order assessing an additional $10 in court fees on criminal defendants to fund monthly stipends paid to Mr. Leccese and other county employees, according to Clinch County records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Judge Blitch began ordering the payments a month after Clinch County commissioners voted in August 2001 to stop paying employees extra for supervising misdemeanor probationers in addition to their full-time duties.
Instead, the commission hired a private contractor to handle probation cases. Judge Blitch's order reinstated the monthly employee stipends of $250 to $300 that the commissioners had voted to discontinue.
The payments continued for nearly six years until January, when Mr. Leccese told Clinch County commissioners about the stipends for the first time. Commissioners alerted authorities after a June 8 audit showed the payments had never been reported for tax purposes.
The audit showed Mr. Leccese and four other county employees were paid from the secret account in which the clerk deposited the court fees.
Deputy court clerk Melinda Davis, who has taken over Mr. Leccese's job since he resigned, was paid $24,655. Sissy Suggs, a deputy sheriff, received $20,845.
Two other county employees, Libby Brown and Sherry Booth, were paid lesser amounts, according to the audit. Ms. Brown received $3,650 and Ms. Booth was paid $400.
Mr. Leccese is the only suspect charged in connection with the payments.
Mr. Leccese faces up to two years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. He will be sentenced later.