July 31, 2015 SavannahNow.com
Former longtime Chatham County Probate Court Chief Clerk Kim Birge on Friday pleaded guilty to stealing $232,000 from the court as part of a scheme in which the government said she stole more than $750,000 over a three-year period.
“I am here today to plead guilty to the offense brought against me,” Birge, 61, told U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. “I abused my position as chief clerk of the Probate Court.
“I opened and closed certificates of deposit belonging to other people for my own benefit. I take full and complete responsibility for my actions, and I humbly ask for forgiveness from anyone I have hurt.
“I have asked God for forgiveness, and I am asking this court for forgiveness as well.”
Birge, standing with her attorney, Tom Withers, told Moore that “I want this court to know that no one knew anything about my shortcomings and indiscretions. … I have let my family and my friends down. This is not something that I take lightly.
“This hurts my heart more than anyone can know, and I am doing everything I can to make sure my life is changed for the better.”
When asked by Moore if she had used the mail, Birge replied, “I mailed letters back and forth, yes, sir.”
“Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?” Moore asked.
“Yes sir, I am,” Birge responded.
The government charged she used the U.S. mail and private commercial carriers as part of the scheme, using money from court accounts for her own benefit.
Under the terms of her negotiated plea with the government, Birge pleaded guilty to count three of a five-count indictment, charging her with mail fraud and federal program fraud in the scheme the government said lasted between January 2011 and November 2011.
The count to which she pleaded charged that between Sept. 21, 2011, and Oct. 18, 2011, a check for $232,000 payable to the Chatham County Probate Court was among the checks she used for her own use.
The government agreed to dismiss the remaining counts, but probation officers can consider the entire indictment in arriving at advisory sentencing guidelines for Moore’s consideration.
The final sentence is up to Moore alone.
Moore also explained to Birge that under federal sentences, parole is abolished.
“You serve the sentence and you will not be released on parole,” Moore said. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
Moore allowed Birge to remain free on her $40,000 bond pending sentencing in several months.
U.S. Secret Service Agent Grant Rothschild testified that the Probate Court had accounts in South State Bank (formerly The Savannah Bank) and First Chatham Bank and that $750,000 was withdrawn from the accounts by checks made out to cash and used for Birge’s benefit.
The indictment charges that Birge stole “United States currency totaling approximately $767,219.”
When asked by Moore whether any audits of court accounts were done, Rothschild said an audit had been conducted several years earlier then one by the government and a second by an outside firm authorized by Chatham County after the discovery of problems in the court’s accounts.
Birge was named May 18 in a five-count indictment that included four counts of mail fraud by using the mail to defraud Chatham County out of more than $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, money that involved a federal grant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scarlett Nokes said in court Friday the plea agreement included the government’s recommending sentencing at the lower end of the sentencing guidelines, but with no sentence being promised by the government.
She also said the agreement did not limit any restitution ordered as part of the sentence is not limited to the sum pleaded to, but may include the full amount alleged in the indictment.