Friday, January 30, 2015

Money for children of Imperial Sugar victims stolen by fired court clerk, attorney says

Money for children of Imperial Sugar victims stolen by fired court clerk, attorney says

Posted: December 19, 2014 - 2:07pm  |  Updated: December 20, 2014 - 12:30am

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Michael B. “Big Mike” Williams, 51, of Savannah died in the sugar refinery explosion on Feb. 7, 2008. Attorney Brent J. Savage is representing the families of five child survivors of the victims, including Williams.

An attorney for the families of five children of victims of the 2008 fire and explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery has notified Chatham County that money held in trust for them is missing through the actions of fired Probate Court clerk Kim Birge.
Claims for the children are listed as totaling $81,109.
The funds at issue were provided to the court to be held in trust “for the benefit of minor children who lost their fathers in the Imperial Sugar explosion” and “are currently unaccounted for,” attorney Brent J. Savage said in an ante litem letter Thursday. The letter is required before any suit can be filed against a public official.
Fourteen workers were killed and more than 40 were injured when a fire and explosion ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth on Feb. 7, 2008.
“We understand that these funds are not available and are not currently located in any accounts and that law enforcement believes that Kim Birge, the former clerk of court, is criminally culpable for this loss,” Savage said.
His letter also charged the court was “aware of the gambling problems Ms. Birge had. To have allowed her free rein with these monies given this knowledge is wrong.
“This is especially bad in light of the fact the parents were prohibited by the Probate Court from placing the money in trust for their own children.”
The letter said Birge provided a copy of a deposit slip showing that “$131,801.24” had been deposited in an account at The Savannah Bank.
“We have recently been advised that Ms. Birge has absconded with the funds which were held in trust for these minor children,” Savage wrote, adding that The Savannah Bank account “was established without authority” of the court.
“We believe that the county is responsible for the actions of the clerk of the Chatham County Probate Court and for the negligence of the judge of the Probate Court in its failure to properly monitor the actions of Kim Birge and for fiscal irresponsibility,” he wrote.
The letter was sent to Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott, and County Attorney John Hart said Savage is expected to seek damages for lost funds, interest on those funds and other general damages as well as attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses.
“These children had lost enough,” Savage’s letter said. “We call upon the county to make good on the actions of its employees and representatives.”

The letter comes in the wake of Birge’s suspension and subsequent dismissal by Judge Harris Lewis from her post as chief clerk/court administrator on Dec. 2 after word surfaced of a criminal probe being conducted by federal and local officers into her activities.
Birge, 60, had been placed on investigative suspension without pay Nov. 20 during a probe of “discrepancies with the services that you are responsible for handling,” Lewis said in a Nov. 20 letter.
Savage’s letter lists five children, only one of whom has reached the age of 18 and is entitled to immediate possession of the funds.
The mothers of each of the children involved were appointed to oversee their child’s property, and settlement of each of the claims was approved by Lewis, the letter said.
After funds were transmitted to Birge, she confirmed receipt of the checks, then informed the attorneys that “the court is bonded and all money are deposited in interest bearing accounts for the minors. The court is solely responsible for these accounts.”
That was followed by the admonition that “no information whatsoever, including account numbers or statement balances will be released to anyone,” the letter said.
Lewis has declined to comment on the issue, citing it as a personnel action.

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