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Clerk Allegedly Stole From Kids to Buy Vette

SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) - A probate court clerk took money from children who lost their fathers in a refinery explosion and used it to buy herself a Corvette, their families claim in court.

Latesha Habersham, Paulette Williams and Debra Byers sued Kim Birge, the former clerk of probate court for Chatham County, and Chatham County, on behalf of their minor children. McKinley Habersham Jr., who is no longer a minor, is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The children lost their fathers in a 2008 explosion at Port Wentworth, Ga.-based Imperial Sugar refinery, and later received settlement money from litigation over the tragedy, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Chatham County State Court.

The explosion that ripped through the refinery on Feb. 7, 2008, killed 14 workers and injured more than 40.

The mothers, who were appointed conservators of their children's property, were required to deposit the money with the Chatham County Probate Court after the court approved the settlement.

Birge, then the clerk of court, confirmed she had received more than $114,000 belonging to the plaintiffs and deposited it in an account at The Savannah Bank.

Co-defendant South State Bank, based in Columbia, S.C., took over The Savannah Bank in 2014.

Although Birge showed the families a copy of the deposit slip, she did not disclose any other information about the account, according to the complaint.

The families claim Birge withdrew the money from the account and used it to buy luxury items, including a Chevrolet Corvette.

They claim the county and the probate judge failed to supervise Birge, who opened and handled the bank account without authorization.

"Upon information and belief, defendant Chatham County, through its employees, was aware of defendant Birge's gambling problems," the complaint states. "However, defendant Birge remained employed with the Chatham County Probate Court until December 2014, and virtually ran the probate court with little supervision from the probate judge."

Birge, 60, was dismissed as chief clerk on Dec. 2, after federal and local authorities began an investigation into her activities. She had worked for the court since July 1982.

Probate Judge Harris Lewis had suspended her without pay in November, citing a probe into "discrepancies with the services that you are responsible for handling."

The families claim the money is nowhere to be found.

They say the bank failed to monitor the account and did not respond to their request for account records.

The families seek compensatory and punitive damages.

They are represented by Brent Savage with Savage, Turner and Pinckney.

An attorney who represents Birge did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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