After 4½ years, what may be the states longest-delayed, outstanding public embezzlement case is finally getting to the courts.
Earlier this month, in an unpublicized Lexington County hearing, Gaston former town traffic court clerk Jessica Poole, 30, pleaded guilty to felony breach of trust with fraudulent intent, according to court records. She could receive up to 10 years in prison.
Sentencing will be delayed until the two other Gaston embezzlement suspects former Mayor Larry Sharpe, 65, and former town clerk Jennifer Poole, 54 go to trial.
Sharpe and Jennifer Poole, who is Jessicas mother, are now set to be tried on embezzlement charges on Oct. 29 before Judge Jeff Young.
It is unclear what has taken the case so long to get to trial.
Eleventh Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts this week.
Former SLED director Reggie Lloyd, who headed up the state investigative agency at the time its agents were on the Gaston case, was puzzled at the long delay.
We wrapped that case up solid confessions and everything, Lloyd said Thursday. We heard something from the solicitors office a few years ago that they needed some more stuff, but we checked that out, and they said they didnt need anything else.
Meanwhile, the long delay has given attorneys for Sharpe and Jennifer Poole an opening to try to get their cases tossed out of court because Myers didnt bring the case to trial for so long.
The unexplained delay in this case has been at least four and one-half years, wrote Sharpes attorney, Jan Strifling of Columbia, in a motion to dismiss the case filed last week in the Lexington County courthouse.
Sharpes constitutional rights guarantee him a speedy trial, Strifling wrote. He added that since 2008, Sharpe has experienced a severe decline in his health making it difficult if not impossible to withstand the rigors of a trial and assist in his own defense.
Rob Bogan, the attorney for Jennifer Poole, told The State last week, I will be joining (Striflings) motion to dismiss the case for lack of a speedy trial.
Bogan is new to the case. Last summer, he replaced Lexington attorney Richard Breibart, who had represented Jennifer Poole since 2008. Breibarts law license was suspended in June by the S.C. Supreme Court. He has since been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of extorting money from clients.
The possibility of court action has been long-awaited by people in and around Gaston, a small Lexington County town of 1,600 about 20 miles south of Columbia.
Ive always said that justice delayed is justice denied, said Donna Scott, quoting an old Latin proverb.
Scott lives just outside Gaston, but for years has had a keen interest in the case because, she said, what happens in the town affects everyone around it. Im past president of the Gaston Community Crimewatch and am still treasurer of that organization.
In 2007, Gaston residents learned by accident through the publishing of a legal ad that the towns insurance coverage was in jeopardy because the town was $12,000 in arrears in insurance payments to the State Budget and Control Boards insurance fund.
Officials assured worried residents all was fine. The town had an annual budget of about $400,000.
All bills are being taken care of, then-town administrator Jennifer Poole was quoted as saying in a July 2007 State newspaper article.
By October 2007, questions intensified. Residents learned other bills including the towns electric and telephone bills were not being paid. SLED began an investigation.
About that time, Jennifer Poole, a 20-year town employee, resigned her position, citing medical problems. In January 2008, Sharpe resigned as mayor. He also cited health reasons.
Four months later, in April 2008, SLED served arrest warrants on Sharpe and the two Pooles. Each was accused of converting at least $5,000 in public money to their own use. The charges are felonies and carry a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Gaston Mayor Troy Bivens declined comment last week on the cases.
But he did say the towns finances are back to normal. All our debt is paid off, and were in the black.
Gaston residents havent forgotten the case.
Come down to the Burger King some time and just listen. Anytime you get a group together, they talk about it, said Kay Rikard, who owns a tanning salon in Gaston.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.