Harrison County

Stone County’s circuit clerk has defied a judge’s order. Could he go to jail?

Stone County Circuit Clerk Jeffrey O’Neal admits he made a mistake.

For several years, O’Neal failed to file annual financial reports state law requires of chancery and circuit clerks. O’Neal, a former Justice Court judge, admits he’s in civil contempt of court because he did not file the reports, even after Circuit Court Judge Christopher Schmidt ordered him to do so.

Chancery and Circuit clerks, who pay themselves from fees their offices generate, must show income and expenses for those offices and list any salaries paid to immediate family. The annual report is due April 15.

Armed with a subpoena and court order, State Auditor Shad White in November demanded O’Neal’s annual financial reports for 2016 and 2017.

O’Neal told the Sun Herald on Tuesday that he finished and turned in the 2016 report but is still working on 2017 and 2018.

“There was no money missing or anything like that, I just was negligent in filing my reports,” said O’Neal, who took office in 2016. “It is real involved. I should have hired someone to help me with it, and I didn’t. I’m a human and I made a mistake.

“I’m not trying to deny anything. I neglected them and it was my fault. I take full responsibility.”

The 2018 report is past due, too.

The reports help hold fee-paid officials accountable, the auditor’s office says. Rarely does a clerk fail to file his or her report, said Kelley Ryan, a spokesperson for White.

“Most clerks do follow the law,” she said.

In his latest order issued April 22, Schmidt says that O’Neal can remedy his contempt citation by delivering the reports to the state auditor’s office in Jackson by noon Tuesday.

If he does not turn over the records by the deadline, O’Neal will have to face Schmidt in court May 2, and show why he should not be fined and jailed for contempt.

Before he was elected circuit clerk, O’Neal served as a Justice Court judge, a job that requires only a high school degree and, after taking office, six months’ training.

O’Neal said he has a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness and, before he became a judge, worked for years as a wholesaler. He said that he sold cigarette lighters, gloves and miscellaneous goods to convenience stores.

Asked if he had much experience with financial reports, O’Neal told a Sun Herald reporter, “Ma’am, I’m not going to talk no more.”

When pressed, he hung up the phone.