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Brantley Thomas, ex-Berkeley schools CFO, embezzled nearly $1M, feds & AG claim

This is Brantley Thomas' official BCSD photo.

Fraud, embezzlement, forgery, money laundering, credit card debt and 9/11.

Those charges and circumstances from federal court papers and state grand jury indictments unsealed Thursday seem more Law & Order than Lowcountry, but prosecutors claim they are real details from a near 15-year theft scheme by Brantley Thomas, former Berkeley County School District chief financial officer.

Thomas was fired by BCSD in February amid a SLED and FBI investigation after admitting to stealing roughly $355,000 from the district.

These newly unveiled court documents allege Thomas in reality stole nearly $1 million from Berkeley County taxpayers over 14 years, starting on September 11, 2001.

Court records show Thomas has agreed to plead guilty in lieu of an indictment, and in doing so promises to help the federal government in its investigation and attempts to prosecute others in connection to the case.

Thomas's plea agreement shows that he has already paid $247,251 in restitution to the government, but that he still faces fines of up to $750,000 and as long as 40 years in prison.

It's unclear if Thomas has entered a plea in connection to the state charges against him levied by the S.C. Attorney General's office.

Berkeley County school officials say the charges by the AG's office are new revelations uncovered through BCSD's cooperation with state and federal investigators after Thomas's original admission of theft in February.

"Although today’s announcement is a substantial vindication for this district, there are still further necessary steps we will take to vindicate past decisions and actions that were not taken in the best interest of the district," BCSD attorney Josh Whitley said in a statement Thursday. "We will continue to actively work with law enforcement on this ongoing criminal investigation."

Thomas, 61, had worked for the Berkeley County School District since 1993.

Read more about the federal and state allegations against Thomas below.

FEDERAL CASE

In a 20-count complaint filed in November, federal prosecutors say Thomas embezzled approximately $450,000 in school district funds between 2012 and 2016.

Prosecutors say some the money came from deliberate overpayments Thomas made to vendors. When the vendors would pay back the extra money, prosecutors say Thomas would keep the money for himself.

Other money was from refund and rebate checks issued to the district by vendors and other agencies, which prosecutors say Thomas laundered by having converted to personal cashier’s checks.

  • The refunds and rebates Thomas reportedly kept and laundered include:
  • Annual refunds from Berkeley Electric Cooperative;
  • Proceeds from tax anticipation notes issued by the S.C. Association of Government Organizations;
  • Money held in a Wells Fargo escrow account; and
  • An unspecified refund check from Kansas State bank.

Thomas was the chairman of the S.C. Association of Government Organizations (SCAGO) at the time he was fired by BCSD, and had been a member of the SCAGO board for years.

According to its website, SCAGO is a “non-profit” … “formed with the primary objective of promoting financing and investment opportunities to benefit South Carolina's Public School Districts.” SCAGO’s board of directors is made up primarily of school district financial officers from around the state. Past members include Glenn Stiegman, former CFO for the Charleston County School District.

Copies of the SCAGO tax anticipation note proceed checks Thomas reportedly stole show some of the checks were made out to the school district, while others were made out to the district through care of Mike Gallagher at Columbia-based Compass Municipal Advisors.

A background check shows Gallagher is a relative of Thomas’s wife, Debra. Thomas resigned from the SCAGO board the day he was fired by BCSD,

Prosecutors say Thomas placed the money he stole into a personal Bank of America credit card account, from which he’d draw money and put in another personal account.

According to the prosecutors, Thomas used the stolen money for living and personal expenses, such as paying off car loans, a membership at a private club and foreign travel.

Federal prosecutors allege Thomas also made $20,000 between 2013 and 2016 as part of a kickback fraud scheme to award school contracts to an insurance agency. The indictments do not name the insurance agency or agent.

Federal prosecutors are asking a judge order Thomas to forfeit property obtained through his actions, $135,000 he has in a bank account, and to pay back a minimum of $79,208 of the proceeds from his alleged crimes.

STATE INDICTMENT

In a 15-count indictment filed in October, the S.C. Attorney General’s office says Thomas embezzled approximately $458,493, separate from the roughly $450,000 federal prosecutors accuse him of stealing.

It all started on September 11, 2001, when the AG’s office says Thomas stole $8,318 from the district under the guise of sending a refund check to the University of South Carolina.

At the time, the indictment paints Thomas as living beyond his means, with the AG’s office alleging he began stealing from the school district at the same time he was buying land and building a home in Hanahan’s Tanner Hall neighborhood.

In 2004, state prosecutors allege Thomas stole a combined $99,458, which he deposited either in his personal account, or a joint account shared with another person not named in the indictment.

Then in 2005, with his joint account showing a balance of only $61, prosecutors say Thomas deposited another $29,452 he stole from the district.

Between 2006 and 2012, the state claims Thomas embezzled money 10 more times, primarily using it to pay down his own credit card debt.

Other embezzlements the state accuses Thomas of include:

  • 2006 - Deposited district fee payment into personal bank account ($3,771)
  • 2007 – Deliberately overpaid BCSD vendor, kept refund ($22,700)
  • 2007 - Used district money to pay down personal credit card bill ($11,602)
  • 2008 - Used district money to pay down personal credit card bill ($31,956)
  • 2009 - Used district money to pay down personal credit card bill ($36,934)
  • 2010 - Used district money to pay down personal credit card bill ($26,743)
  • 2011 – Deposited three district fee payments into personal account, used money to pay down personal credit card bill ($98,349)
  • 2011 - Forged an invoice and had a school district vendor payment routed to personal account, used money to pay down personal credit card bill ($26,743)
  • 2012 - Routed school district vendor payment to personal account, used money to pay down personal credit card bill ($31,176)
  • 2012 - Routed school district vendor payment to personal account, used money to pay down personal credit card bill ($21,288)

In all, the state has charged Thomas with 14 counts of embezzlement, and 1 count of forgery.

*Clarification (12/08/17): A previous version of this story said Brantley Thomas had pleaded guilty to allegations made by federal prosecutors. Thomas has agreed to plead guilty, but has not formally appeared before a judge to enter a guilty plea as of the publishing of this article.

*Clarification (12/07/17): A previous version of this story said Thomas had been indicted in federal court. Thomas avoided a federal indictment as part of a guilty plea agreement. Thomas was, however, indicted in state court.


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