Investigation: Polk County Circuit Court Clerk’s employees paid more than $123,000 for time not worked

Staff photo by Ben Benton / The Polk County Justice Center in Benton, Tennessee, is seen Jan. 16, 2020. The facility, completed for $8 million in 2007, houses the Clerk of Court offices, General Sessions, Circuit and Chancery courts, the Polk County Sheriff's Office and detention center which has beds for 154 inmates, 107 for men and 47 for women.

State auditors found seven Polk County Circuit Court Clerk's Office employees, at the clerk's direction, were paid more than $123,000 for time they didn't work between January 2018 and April 2022, according to a state investigative report released Tuesday.

Investigation findings have been turned over to District Attorney Ryan K. Desmond in Blount County for review. The office in the investigation is in the 10th Judicial District, which consists of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties.

Polk County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Keith allowed multiple employees to submit time sheets claiming 40 hours per week while she regularly gave them each a day off each week, investigators from the Tennessee Comptroller's Office said in a statement on the investigation. Keith closed the office for one hour during lunch each weekday prior to January 2022 and still paid employees for the time.

The investigation in Keith's office was noted in a Comptroller's audit performed in March in Polk County.

"At the direction of the clerk, the employees only regularly worked 28 hours per week," investigators said.

The person who answered the Circuit Court Clerk's Office phone Tuesday said Keith was out of the office for the day. Keith, who was elected to office in 2018, also did not respond to a request for comment sent to her office email or a phone message left at a landline number in her name.

Comptroller's office investigators said the county's personnel policy states that a full-time employee must work at least 32 hours per week to receive annual leave, sick leave, compensatory time and an option for insurance coverage by the county.

The comptroller's investigative report broke down all the benefits the seven employees received but had not earned. Time not worked totaled $27,024; unsupported comp time, $1,943; annual leave taken, $358; sick leave taken, $347; and insurance provided $93,391; for a total of $123,065.

  photo  Polk County, Tenn., government / Polk County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Keith.

The seven employees also improperly received service credits with the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, investigators said. Because the employees were regularly working only 28 hours per week, they were not entitled to receive full-time service credits with the system.

Polk County Executive Robby Hatcher said the investigation's findings are a blow to the county's reputation and taxpayers.

"We're not the attendance police. We pay based on what the employees' supervisor turned in," Hatcher said in a phone interview. "I hate it. I hate that anything like this has come up against an elected official in our county, because it's not good for them, and it's not good for taxpayers to have to go through this. Especially in a tight-knit community like we are — everybody knows everybody — it's not good."

Hatcher said the discrepancies initially came to light through a former county commissioner around 2020 or 2021, and the Comptroller's Office acted on that information, culminating in the investigative report.

The amount of money involved when the probe was over was surprising, Hatcher said.

"I didn't think it was going to be anything near that," he said. "I mean, over $100,000? That's a substantial amount."

Hatcher's office provided time sheets and other related documents to state investigators then, he said. The County Commission around January 2022 took action to standardize time sheets for all county departments, and those issues have been improved, Hatcher said.

"The Polk County Circuit Court Clerk should also discontinue the use of signature stamps in the office," Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower said in the statement. "A signature stamp of a Polk County judge was improperly used by the clerk's office on two expungement orders. Internal controls over the use of signature stamps are inherently weak, and state law does not provide authority for their use."

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.