Former jailer gets public defender in food card theft case - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Former jailer gets public defender for charges of stealing inmate's food card

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Gregory Sciance has waited three months to confront the former booking Sergeant, accused of stealing his food stamp card while he was serving his own sentence for theft at the Hamilton County Jail.

"I figured it'd be pretty cut-and-dried, in-and out," he says.

But Friday, Wanda Smith asked for, and received a public defender, after presenting evidence of financial hardship to Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman.

"You're in bankruptcy," Judge Steelman asks. 

"Yes," Smith says.

Steelman has placed her case on the Settlement Docket for May 1, indicating that Smith is interested in striking a deal with prosecutors regarding her indictment for charges of official misconduct and theft less than $500.

She would not reveal her intentions upon leaving the courtroom, saying only "no comment" when an Eyewitness News crew sought further information about her legal requests and the allegations against her.

She, and her husband, Clinton Greer Smith, Sr. filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection, about two-and-one-half-weeks before her indictment. Under Chapter 13, the debtor seeks an extended time frame to settle debts with creditors.

Among the definitions for official misconduct in Tennessee Code 39-16-402 is "an unauthorized exercise of official power," that could allow the official or government employee to "receive any benefit not otherwise provided by law."

Prosecutors and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office allege that then-Sgt.Smith took Sciance's Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT or 'food stamp') card either as he was booked into the Jail in early September, or removed it from the Property Room shortly thereafter.

Sciance maintains that the card wasn't among the property returned, when he completed his sentence at the Silverdale Correctional Facility in early November. Internal Affairs investigators have confirmed the conclusions that Sciance reached with his own 'detective work', Sheriff Jim Hammond told Channel 3 November 21. 

"She (Smith) changed the PIN (identification number) so she could use it while I was locked up," Sciance alleges. "370 some dollars of food and candy at WalMart and Dollar General in Dunlap, and at the Dollar Tree in Soddy Daisy."

"It was still active until I shut it down. I've got my card back, but the money has not been reimbursed."

The Smiths' bankruptcy filing lists a mortgaged home in Dunlap, additional real estate, automobiles, and personal property as assets with an estimated total value of $303,176.82.  

It lists liabilities totaling $188,653.19, including medical expenses, a credit card's outstanding balance of $913, and $3,399.81 owed to a funeral home.

Smith earned more than $39,000 in her tenth and final year as a Hamilton County employee, according to Sheriff's Office records. Following her resignation, the bankruptcy filing states, the couple's only income consists of her husband SSI disability payments (approximately $1200 monthly) and her own pension from the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (approximately $501 monthly)

"The theft charge is her lesser worry," Sciance's attorney, Brandy Spurgin.

That misdemeanor conviction would net Smith no more than 11 months, 29 days in the county workhouse. 

But official misconduct is a Class E felony.  

"You're looking not only at two to four years in prison, you'll lose that state pension," says Blake Fontenay, Communications Director for the Tennessee Secretary of State.

Tennessee Code 8-35-124 mandates that TCRS pension benefits terminate immediately upon conviction for official misconduct. Those convicted will have their own contributions refunded. Spouses or children, may collect benefits once the pensioner dies, provided the pensioner designated them as beneficiaries prior to his/her conviction.

"They've got her (Smith) dead to rights," Sciance claims.

Sheriff Hammond has said the internal affairs investigation uncovered video evidence of Smith taking Sciance's EBT card, and using it in the stores where the unauthorized purchases were made. The sheriff has not specified whether the video came from security cameras installed in the jail's booking area, or in its property room.

Sciance is considering suing Hamilton County and the sheriff's office on grounds that neither has provided adequate security to protect inmates' property while they're incarcerated.

"But we may have to put that on hold for a bit," Sciance's attorney, Brandy Spurgin says. 

"I have my own concerns with the criminal charges pending. Her (Smith's) right as a defendant is obviously going to trump any rights that we have in civil court."

Sciance has his own definition of justice.

"I went to jail, I did all my time, let her do hers," he says. "Let her see what life is like on the other side of the fence."

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