Crime

State workers in South Mississippi embezzled millions — and still owe, audit shows

How the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources was unraveled

The Sun Herald uncovered questionable spending practices at DMR as state and federal authorities investigated agency practices under former director Bill Walker.
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The Sun Herald uncovered questionable spending practices at DMR as state and federal authorities investigated agency practices under former director Bill Walker.

A former state official in Biloxi and two women whose actions shut down Head Start programs in Harrison County are among 17 former state workers from South Mississippi who collectively owe the state tens of thousands of dollars.

Most were accused of embezzling money or property, misappropriating funds or misusing government funds. Some are in prison and some are awaiting trial.

The 17 from South Mississippi showed up in the state auditor’s annual report, released Tuesday, on the status of cases involving money owed from criminal conduct, incorrect expenditures of public funds and payment for missing equipment.

Pending repayments in South Mississippi mostly involve criminal acts of state workers who were employed in Harrison, Jackson and Pearl River counties.

Collectively, the former state workers in South Mississippi owed about $2.3 million as of July 1, 2017, the start of the 2018 fiscal year. By June 30, about $520,000 in payments had been made during the fiscal year, leaving about $1.8 million owed, the report shows.

Statewide, about $11 million in repayments were owed at the start of the fiscal year. More than $2.8 million was recovered across the state, State Auditor Shad White said in the annual report.

The report is based on the status of formal (criminal) and informal demands made in recent years, and payment for missing equipment, and does not include amounts paid in a previous fiscal year.

Performance audits that discovered more than $99 million owed led to the recovery of about $1.5 million, White said.

Also, the state was reimbursed for missing equipment to the tune of $3,799.12. Auditors apparently left no stone unturned. The state last year collected amounts of $1.44 to $3 from three different state workers who paid for missing equipment.

Here’s the status of pending cases for the fiscal year, according to the report:

Demands by the law enforcement division

George County

  • Former JROTC Instructor Sgt. Kevin Mardis, misuse of public funds, $13,480.94. On October 19, 2015, Mardis pleaded guilty to embezzlement. He was ordered to pay restitution of $6,740.47 to the George County School System and $6,740.47 to the Office of the State Auditor. Paid $2,400.00, owes $7,500.44.

Hancock County

  • Former Deputy Justice Court Clerk Dana Beaman, embezzlement, $197,408.94 On July 28, 2017, Beaman was indicted on 4 counts of embezzlement and was issued a formal demand in the amount of $197,408.94. Paid a bond company $100,000.00, leaving a balance of $97,408.94.

Harrison County

  • Harrison County employee, Gulfport Public School District, Contractor Louis O’Bannon, misappropriations of funds, $50,000. As a result of his improper contracting, O’Bannon agreed to repay the Gulfport School District $50,000.00. Paid $5,000.00 during the 2017 fiscal year, leaving a balance of $45,000.00. Made no payment in 2018.+

  • Former Harrison Central High employee (bookkeeper) Sherry Brewer, embezzlement and alteration of records, $11,753.36. On September 29, 2017, a demand was issued in the amount of $11,753.36. Paid the demand in full in 2018.

  • Mississippi Association of School Resource Officers, former Chief of Police for Biloxi Schools Paul Cannette, embezzlement, $244,819.78. On November 3, 2017, Cannette was indicted on an embezzlement charge. On November 14, 2017, a formal demand in the amount of $244,819.78 was issued. No money was repaid.

  • Former Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Executive Director William “Bill” Walker, embezzlement, $362.689.14. A formal demand in the amount of $362,689.14 was issued on November 7, 2013. Paid $2,517.42 in 2018, owes $357,364.29

  • Former MDMR Chief of Staff Joseph Ziegler Jr., misuse of public funds, $258, 268.75. A formal demand in the amount of $258,268.75 was issued on November 7, 2013. On August 14, 2014, Ziegler pled guilty to misprision of a felony. Paid $11,000 in 2018, leaving a balance of $206,962.57.

  • Gulf Coast Community Action Agency former Deputy Director Linda Harvey-Irvin, bribery, $531,236. On February 19, 2015, Harvey-Irvin pleaded guilty to bribery. She owes $531,236.00 in restitution to be paid jointly and severally with Markuntala Croom. Federal restitution is still owed.

  • Vendor to Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, Markuntala Croom, bribery, $531,236. On February 19, 2015, Croom pleaded guilty to bribery. She owes $531,236.00 in restitution to be paid jointly and severally with Linda Harvey-Irvin. Federal restitution is still owed.

  • Vendor to Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, Donald Walton, bribery, $31,000. On February 19, 2015, Walton pleaded guilty to bribery. On July 1, 2015, Walton was ordered to repay $31,000. Did not pay during the fiscal year. Federal restitution is still owed.

  • Former utility cashier Courtney Page, misuse of funds, $3,106.28. On August 25, 2016, a formal demand was issued in the amount of $3,106.28 and transmitted to the Office of the Attorney General on March 17, 2017. No money was paid.

Jackson County

  • Jackson County Emergency Services employee Roger Gibson, misappropriation of funds, $3,912.71. On March 9, 2017, a formal demand in the amount of $3,912.71 was issued. On December 9, 2016, Gibson was indicted on charges of conspiracy and fraud. For Fiscal Year 2018, he payed $2,297.96, leaving $1,614.75 owed. On July 19, 2017, an order of nolle prosequi was issued.

  • County employee Cheryl McLeod, misappropriation of funds, $1,148.98. On March 7, 2017, a formal demand in the amount of $1,148.98 was issued. On December 9, 2016, McLeod was indicted on charges of conspiracy and fraud. On July 19, 2017, an order of nolle prosequi was issued.

  • Jackson County Sheriff’s Office former employee Cherie Ward, embezzlement, $2,970. On November 3, 2017, Ward was indicted on an embezzlement charge. On November 13, 2017, a formal demand in the amount of $2,970.00 was issued. No money was paid.

  • Keys Vocational Center former bookkeeper Linda Smeby, embezzlement, $9,113.85. On May 13, 2013, Smeby pleaded guilty to embezzlement. She paid $1,100.00 in FY 2018, leaving a balance of $5,513.85.

  • Singing River Credit Union Attorney Thomas Robertson, embezzlement, $60,000. On June 27, 2016, Robertson pleaded guilty to embezzlement. Robertson was ordered to pay restitution of $60,000.00, of which $16,000.00 was already paid to the SRCU, leaving $44,000.00 owed. The OSA investigation revealed a total loss of $493,054.10. For Fiscal Year 2018, he paid $1,200.00 and owes $48,272.61.

Pearl River County

  • Pearl River County School District former bookkeeper Darlene Comesana, embezzlement, $92,394.75. On August 24, 2009, Darlene Comesana pleaded guilty to embezzlement. The court withheld acceptance of the plea for 5 years and ordered her to pay restitution in the amount of $40,000.00. A formal demand in the amount of $92,394.75 was issued on March 23, 2011. She paid $300 in FY 2018, and owes $81,449.75.



The complete report is available online.

Robin Fitzgerald, 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews
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