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VOL. 124 | NO. 19 | Thursday, January 29, 2009

Report: Tip Trade Brisk in Clerk’s Office

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()
“They knew it was wrong when they did it, and they did it anyway.”
– Danny Presley
Deputy County Attorney

A tip jar wasn’t on the counter at the Shelby County Clerk’s office, but for at least six years, starting in 2003, some employees took tips from citizens as they processed car titles and license plates.

A new report by the Shelby County Attorney’s Office also details how two local car dealers paid two high-level administrators with gift cards for helping them get car titles and tags by going around office procedures.

The investigation of County Clerk Chief Administrative Officer Charles Nichols and three others began in December. Deputy County Attorney Danny Presley questioned all four earlier this month.

Nichols, Deputy Administrator Beverly Peete, Title Clerk Maria Janette Bonner and Clerical Specialist Janice Garrett have all been suspended by County Clerk Debbie Stamson. Stamson will use Presley’s report to determine by the end of this week what other action she should take against them, up to and including dismissal.

Meanwhile, the report will be reviewed by the district attorney general for possible criminal charges.

‘Expressions of gratitude’

If you had a problem at the Shelby County Clerk’s office and needed to speak to a manager, Nichols was probably the person you talked to. Nichols was a top aide not only to Stamson, but also to former clerk Jayne Creson.

For 23 years, he was the troubleshooter in an office that issues auto titles and tags as well as marriage licenses.

Nichols was a common sight, frequently checking the lines at the clerk’s office Downtown when he recognized a face in the line, which was often. He was also chief cook at periodic cookouts on the lawn by the clerk’s office Downtown.

Nichols allegedly signed for car titles and ordered staff to distribute them to motorists as well as car dealers who never made the required appearance at the clerk’s office or got the cars inspected as required.

Presley’s report was not a criminal investigation. Each of the four gave sworn testimony as part of the administrative investigation.

“There were some instances where they initially denied things and then toward the end of the statement they conceded the fact,” he told The Daily News. “They admitted they knew it was wrong. They just accepted the money because they considered it an expression of gratitude by the customer. They knew it was wrong when they did it, and they did it anyway.”

Gratuitous activities

Nichols accepted gift cards from Bud Davis Cadillac and Gossett Motor Cars, according to the redacted report obtained by The Daily News.

Some names – corporate or personal – in the report are blocked out, Presley said, because if they involved motor vehicle records they are not public records under state law. Presley said they might also be part of any criminal investigation.

He told The Daily News Gossett and Bud Davis were left in the report because “they were not part of a motor vehicle record. They were donors of a gratuity.”

Memphis police questioned Nichols about the gift cards in December, about a month after Stamson began her own investigation into a Simon gift card Gossett Motor Cars gave Nichols in 2006. Police wanted to know about a $500 gift card from Gossett.

“We purchased this for him as a gesture of our appreciation for his hard work and helpfulness in everyday business,” reads a Nov. 1 letter to Stamson from Gossett office manager Nancy Life. The letter puts the amount of the gift card at $252.

Nichols told Presley, according to the report, that he believed it was for $252 but that he wrote Gossett a check for $500 as reimbursement this past December.

“Mr. Nichols stated that over the years, he has received gift cards or gift certificates from auto dealers,” the report reads. He also admitted taking a $100 bill from “some guy” he had helped in the past.

The report includes a memo from 2003 in which Nichols was reprimanded by Title and Registration Manager Debra Knight for issuing titles outside of regular procedures.

“Under no circumstances should a title be handed over the counter to a customer unless it is a duplicate title,” Knight wrote Nichols in the July 2003 e-mail. “It may be two weeks before we actually get the record to do the check on this vehicle. Therefore, a title is on the street to a vehicle that may be stolen. Charles, we have talked about this before and it must stop.”

Nichols denied ever seeing the e-mail when Presley showed him a copy.

“Mr. Nichols agreed that he had directed employees to issue original auto titles prior to the proper paperwork being reviewed and approved by the state,” the report reads.

He also admitted telling employees to process titles and car registrations without autos being inspected.

“Mr. Nichols explained this practice by stating that the titling and registration would perfect the automobile dealerships’ lien and thus would facilitate payment for the purchase of the vehicle,” according to the report. “Further, that if the lien was not perfected within 20 days, the dealership would not have any right to the money.”

A perfected lien is one in which a creditor, such as a car dealership, has a priority right among third-party creditors.

Tipped off

Garrett, an eight-year employee, told Presley that Bud Davis Cadillac bought Nichols a $50 gift card and $25 gift card for her in 2006 or 2007. She also admitted taking a Starbucks gift card from a customer at the clerk’s office.

“Ms. Garrett stated that she has accepted money on average ‘once a week, twice – once a month; twice a week, maybe,” according to the report. “Ms. Garrett stated that if she were to total the amount she has received over her tenure, it would be between $1,000 to $1,500.”

Peete has worked in the clerk’s office for 30 years. She said, under oath, that she saw an individual, whose identity is redacted in the report, in the office frequently getting replacement car titles for others. Peete also said “it was customary in the office for customers to give gratitude for services rendered.” That gratitude amounted to a few dollars in many cases, sometimes left by customers in envelopes and other times in the form of change left on counters.

“Peete stated that Ms. Jayne Creson issued a memorandum (in 2003) to all employees prohibiting the acceptance of money after it became apparent that money from the ‘office kitty’ was being stolen by employees in the office,” according to the report.

The practice apparently came to light again earlier this month when Shelva Stafford, an office supervisor, told Peete that she saw Bonner, who has worked as a title clerk for about a year, keep $7 in change left by a customer.

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