Former DSS finance director pleads guilty in $5 million theft

The former finance director of South Carolina's social services agency pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing more than $5 million from the agency, money he has said he spent on alcohol, gambling and strippers.

Paul Moore, 60, pleaded guilty in federal court in Columbia to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and theft of government funds. He said little during the hearing, only speaking to answer routine questions from U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour.

From 2004 to 2008, authorities say, Moore and another man, Jonathan Moses, recruited hundreds of people to cash checks Moore had made out to them from agency funds, checks he marked "Process special. Return to Paul Moore." The recruits then cashed the checks at a variety of South Carolina banks, keeping some money from each transaction but turning over most of the cash to Moore and Moses.

In all, prosecutors say, Moore requested about 750 checks cut from state treasury department funds, for about $7,000 each.

Prosecutors have said none of the people who cashed checks or Moses worked for the Department of Social Services. Authorities learned about the scheme in October 2008, after one of the check-cashing recruits alerted the U.S. Secret Service.

Moore, who was arrested in January, had told prosecutors he wanted to plead guilty but disputed the amount he stole from the agency. His attorney said Moore had admitted distributing 200 checks over four years, for a total of $1.3 million, money Moore said he then spent on alcohol, gambling and strippers.

Moore got some of those strippers to cash checks for him, although Assistant U.S. Attorney Debbie Barbier said he didn't ask them to turn the money over to him.

"Some of these people worked at Platinum Plus and other adult nightclubs that he frequented," Barbier said.

Under a plea agreement signed earlier this week, Moore agreed to help the government recover $5.2 million, the full amount prosecutors say he pilfered. He told Seymour he completed an alcohol treatment program earlier this year, after his arrest.

So far, Moore, Moses and 50 others have been prosecuted for their roles in the scheme, and prosecutors say more arrests are expected. In all, Barbier says, authorities think the two men recruited more than 300 people to help embezzle the money, telling them to say the money was either from grants or child support payments if anyone asked.

Last month, Moses was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to his role.

Moore will remain free on bond until his sentencing hearing, which will likely be in several months. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $500,000 in fines, although prosecutors have said they will recommend a lighter sentence because Moore is helping with their investigation.