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A former employee of two local law offices pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing more than $35,000 from the firms by falsely filling out closing documents.

Circuit Court Judge John Milling sentenced Carolyn Keys to 20 years in prison, which will be suspended after she serves three years in prison and five years on probation. Milling ordered the sentences to run consecutively, so if Keys does not successfully complete her probation, she must serve the remainder of her prison sentence.

Keys, 60, who lives with her sister in Virginia, pleaded guilty to two counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent for two separate incidents at law firms in Horry and Georgetown counties, Solicitor Greg Hembree said.

Prosecutors had recommended the sentences to run concurrently, but Milling said he chose the consecutive sentence in case she failed the conditions of her probation, which include repaying $22,500 in restitution to the law firms, and random drug and alcohol testing.

Keys admitted she took $20,492 from the Manley and Hatley Law Firm while she worked there from May 2005 to December 2006 and $15,149 from the McNair Law Firm, where she worked after leaving the Manley and Hatley firm.

Keys' attorney, Mary Ashley Martin, told Milling that Keys suffered from leukemia and was first diagnosed when the incidents began. Martin said Keys also was under stress because her son had been deployed with the Marines to Iraq.

"I am so sorry. I know I can't correct what I've done. I hope you will forgive me," Keys said during the hearing as she turned to representatives of the law firms. "They put trust in me, and I betrayed that trust," Keys said.

Keys served a probation sentence in 2004 after she pleaded guilty to obtaining $1,850 under false pretenses, and she paid restitution to her former landlord in that case, Hembree said.

"She's been given a chance. Another judge gave her a chance and that experiment failed," Hembree said before Milling issued his sentence Wednesday. "This is not some kid down at the Wal-Mart, who does something stupid. This is a legal professional. We have to have faith and trust in this profession or it breaks down. She was single-handedly breaking it down."

Chad Hatley, who employed Keys, said he's spent at least $72,000 repaying clients, hiring auditors and accounting firms to review his records in addition to answering to the S.C. Bar Association about the misconduct in his office.


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