The former chief financial officer for Berkeley County (SC) School District admitted this week he embezzled at least $800,000 from the district, as he pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges. Brantley D. Thomas III, 61, faces up to 300 years in prison and at least $5 million in fines on all of the federal charges.Thomas will be sentenced after the presentencing report is finished, which could take up to three months.
The former South Carolina school district CFO was indicted on 20 counts in December 2017 by a federal grand jury. At the same time, another 15 counts from the state grand jury were unsealed.
County prosecutor Josh Whitley stated after the federal hearing that there were no surprises that day. He noted that the county is looking forward to the former CFO being sentenced and also wants to work with the state and federal authorities to complete the investigation. The FBI played a major role in uncovering all of Thomas’ alleged financial crimes going back more than 15 years.
Thomas allegedly embezzled funds that were intended to be federal grants for South Carolina special education students. He began working for the school district in 1993, and oversaw all finances, including a general fund of $260 million. He had one of the highest salaries in the county at $130,500. The man was fired last February after officials in the district learned the FBI and Wells Fargo was probing their finances. The bank had begun to be suspicious after there were so many refunds being run through the district’s accounts from various vendors.
According to the federal indictment, Thomas has been charged with a single count of fraud and embezzlement from a federally funded program, nine counts of money laundering, and 10 counts of wire fraud; the latter involves getting kickbacks for awarding insurance policy contracts to various companies. On the state indictments, he faces 14 counts of embezzlement and a single count of forgery.
During the latest hearing, the court heard the details of how Thomas stole funds. One of them was to overpay vendors through the school district’s accounts, and then he would deposit refund checks in his own account. Thomas then used the embezzled money to pay for personal expenses, including a private club membership and for various foreign trips. He also used school district funds to pay off credit cards and car loans.
Other money was from various rebate checks that were issued to the school district by several vendors and other state agencies. Prosecutors allege Thomas engaged in money laundering by having the funds converted to cashier’s checks in his name. Some of the rebates and refunds he allegedly kept and laundered were:
- Yearly refunds from Berkeley Electric Cooperative
- Funds from tax anticipation notes that were issued by the South Carolina Association of Government Organizations
- Money that was kept in an escrow account at Well Fargo bank
- A refund check from a bank in Kansas
Last month, Thomas was allowed to stay free on a $50,000 bond, but he was required to give up his passport and was not allowed to leave West Virginia without permission. Also, the ex-CFO was put under house arrest and released on a $50,000 bond after a state court hearing. He currently is staying with his mother in Charleston and may only leave for church, work, doctors’ appointments and to visit his father.
Thomas agreed to waive federal grand jury proceedings and will plead guilty to all charges. He has promised to pay a $2000 assessment, which is $100 for each offense. At that point, the plea agreement will be binding.
The plea bargain on the federal charges calls for Thomas to pay full restitution. This also can include restitution to each victim who may have been harmed by his embezzling schemes. At this time, he as repaid $470,000. Approximately $135,000 was seized from his bank account last year, and he paid approximately $320,000 in restitution at the end of 2017.
Each of the federal charges are felonies. He can receive up to 10 years in prison for each of the nine money laundering charges and the embezzlement charge. The 10 wire fraud charges each carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. However, the federal government will request a reduced sentence if Thomas helps to prosecute others. On the state charges, he faces 135 years in prison.
How It All Started
The embezzlement and money laundering schemes apparently date to September 11, 2001, when the Attorney General’s office states the CFO stole $8318 from the school district as he pretended to send a refund check to the University of South Carolina. At the time, the state indictment showed Thomas was living well beyond his means. The AG office alleges he started to steal from the district at the time he was buying properties and building a new home.
In 2004, South Carolina state prosecutors allege Thomas stole $99,400, which he put into a personal bank account or an account shared with another person. In 2005, he then deposited another $30,000 he stole. From 2006 to 2012, the state alleges Thomas embezzled funds 10 more times, mostly to pay down credit cards.
The chairwoman of the Berkeley County School Board stated in early January 2018 that she was disappointed that an employee for so many years had taken advantage of his CFO position and choose to cheat taxpayers and children for years to come. Sally Wofford also thanked the FBI for its hard work in discovering all of the thefts that led to the state and federal charges.
Thomas’ attorney, Matthew Hubble, stated after the latest federal hearing that his client had taken responsibility for what he did and is intending to fully cooperate with the police and FBI. He said Thomas deeply regrets what he did and he has apologized to the school district, children and community.