Crime

Ex-police chief for Biloxi schools sentenced for embezzling nearly $170,000

Paul Cannette
Paul Cannette Harrison County Adult Detention Center

A law enforcement officer who was the Biloxi School District’s campus security chief for a decade had more than one lapse in judgment when he embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from a state organization, prosecutors said.

“It was 609 separate lapses in judgment,” Assistant District Attorney Ian Baker said as the prosecution of Paul Cannette wrapped up with his sentencing Tuesday.

But the prosecution picked back up unexpectedly Thursday as Circuit Judge Roger Clark re-sentenced Cannette for embezzling nearly $170,000. Clark also denied a prosecutor’s request to give Cannette a 20-year prison term instead of 10 years.

Clark had sentenced Cannette to 10 years in prison on Tuesday and suspended four years, leaving four to serve followed by two years of house arrest and three years of probation.

After the hearing, the Mississippi Department of Corrections notified Clark that the prison system would interpret his sentence differently, requiring Cannette to serve more than four years in addition to house arrest, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Clark on Thursday again ordered a 10-year prison term, but suspended 5 1/2 years, leaving 4 1/2 years to serve, followed by five years of post release supervision.

Cannette still must repay the money to the state non-profit agency.

Baker on Tuesday told Clark that Cannette, of Ocean Springs, made more than 600 personal transactions while serving as president of the Mississippi Association of School Resource Officers (MASRO).

Cannette stole a total of $169,865 over a period of more than three years — from April 2013 through at least November 2016 — and admitted it by pleading guilty to embezzlement, Baker said.

Clark ordered restitution and ordered to pay $10,000 immediately and report to the Harrison County jail on Friday. He was booked into the jail late Friday afternoon. From there, he will be transferred to a state prison designated by the MDOC.

The Biloxi School District has a certified campus police force that operates independently of the Biloxi Police Department. School resource officers are certified law enforcement officers who function as a teacher, informal counselor and law enforcement officer.

Dual roles

Cannette had been a patrol officer and a criminal investigator for Biloxi police before he took the campus security job.

He was elected as MASRO’s president on June 4, 2012, prosecutors said. He became the sole officer of the organization and assumed duties as treasurer, leaving no checks and balances.

The organization receives funds paid by members’ annual dues and from a Mississippi Community-Oriented Policing Services grant. MASRO submits vouchers for school resource officer training and the state reimburses the money, prosecutors said.

In April 2013, Cannette set up an account for MASRO funds at a local bank. He began embezzling shortly after that, Baker said.

Golf trips

He used MASRO funds to pay for golfing trips, rounds of golf and golf gear, Baker said. He also paid for dining out, pet grooming and purchases of jewelry.

His crimes came to light while the bank was performing a mandatory internal audit of MASRO because it is a nonprofit group, she said. Discrepancies were turned over and the State Auditor’s Office began an investigation.

Cannette resigned from the campus police job and the state organization after his indictment in November 2017.

The State Auditor’s Office issued a formal demand on Nov. 14, 2017, for Cannette to repay a total of $244,819.78. The amount includes missing money plus interest and costs of the investigation.

Cannette is among 17 former state workers who collectively owed the state about $2.3 million, most through embezzling, by the end of fiscal year 2017. By June 30, about $520,000 in payments had been made.

Cannette had made no payment by June 30, a state audit shows.

‘Vast departure’

His attorney on Tuesday asked the judge for leniency, Baker said, saying Cannette could repay the money more quickly if he could avoid prison.

Baker said Clark referred to sentences he has imposed in other embezzlement cases, and said he felt prison and house arrest are fair enough.

“Today’s case and the crimes committed by this defendant are a vast departure from the high standards upheld every day by the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers here on the Coast,” District Attorney Joel Smith said in a news release.

“Corruption of this nature is extremely disappointing to the good men and women who proudly wear the badge and serve our community with integrity.”

RobinFitzgerald, 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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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