Kim Birge pleads not guilty to Probate Court fraud charges (GA)

Former longtime Chatham County Probate Court Chief Clerk Kim Birge on Tuesday pleaded not guilty in federal court to stealing or embezzling more than $700,000 from the court over a three-year period.

“How does she plead to the charges in the indictment?” U.S. Magistrate Judge G.R. Smith asked Birge’s lawyer, Tom Withers, during her initial appearance.

“Not guilty,” Withers replied.

Smith allowed Birge, 61, to remain free on a $40,000 unsecured bond pending trial. That means she’s required to put up no money as part of the bond. Birge, who started with the court on July 19, 1982, had long been a stalwart in Probate Court, dating back to the administration of former Judge Robert Cook.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scarlett Nokes told Smith the government did not object to a probation recommendation that Birge be released pending trial.

The judge noted “a confession to a gambling addiction problem” in Birge’s probation workup and later directed her to refrain from any gambling activity as a condition of her pre-trial release.

He also prohibited her from any alcohol use during the pre-trial period and ordered mental health and substance abuse evaluations.

Smith also told Birge to have no contact with any potential witnesses or victims in the case.

Birge was named May 18 in a five-count indictment including four counts of mail fraud by using the mail to defraud Chatham County out of $700,000 between January 2011 and November 2014 and then using the cash for her own benefit.

A fifth count charged federal program fraud. It alleged she stole about $767,218 between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2014, from Chatham County involving a federal grant.

The count included the same funds and time frame as the mail fraud counts.

Included in the indictment is a forfeiture allegation in which the government says, if she’s convicted, it will try to recover “any property, real or personal” derived from the offense. That would include but not be limited to at least $767,218.

The indictment charged that Birge in her capacity as chief clerk of Probate Court was authorized to conduct transactions in at least two court bank accounts, but “was not authorized to conduct transactions in the Probate Court bank accounts for the benefit of herself or her family.”

It charges she would sign court orders to direct insurance companies, private businesses, public employers, banks and other entities to send funds to the court “for the benefit of minors and other individuals who had conservatorships” established in Chatham County.

A conservatorship establishes someone to watch out for money or property for minors or incompetents in the court.

Birge would then deposit fees paid to the court into one of two bank accounts maintained by the court and make representations that the money would be used for court matters, the indictment charged.

She would then forge the signatures of conservators and/or their attorneys to create false documents to disburse the money, would use the cash from negotiated checks for her personal use and would fail to disclose her activities to others in the court, the indictment charged.

Probate Judge Harris Lewis fired Birge on Dec. 2 in what was described as “in the best interests” of the court.

He had placed Birge 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.

As part of Lewis’ initial action, Birge has been barred from entering the Montgomery Street courthouse or discussing any matters related to the investigation “with anyone other than investigatory staff, unless otherwise directed to do so.”

Birge has not returned to the courthouse since she left Nov. 20.

The action came in wake of a reported federal/Savannah-Chatham police probe of undisclosed activity.

Attribution:

Kim Birge pleads not guilty to Probate Court fraud charges
Jan Skutch
June 3, 2015
Savannah Morning News
http://savannahnow.com/news/2015-06-02/kim-birge-pleads-not-guilty-probate-court-fraud-charges

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