Two former Moss Point city water department employees will spend two years under house arrest for stealing thousands in cash payments that customers made on fines owed on delinquent accounts.
For five additional years, Kenya Bowens, 40, and Lakeshia Benton, 38, will remain on post-release supervision for embezzling $13,752 from the water department.
Judge Dale Harkey sentenced the pair to a total of 12 years in prison, but suspended any prison time.
Over about a year and a half, the two workers would void cash payments customers made and then pocket the money themselves, according to investigators.
They placed the stolen money in paper to hide what they were doing and get the money out of the office without anyone knowing about it. They would later meet up to divvy up the stolen money.
The two employees became the target of an investigation after a supervisor noticed the two city workers had an unusually large number of voided cash transactions, State Auditor Shad White said.
As a result of their actions, White said, certain customer bills went unpaid for years without any disruption in their services.
The Sun Herald broke the story on the missing money before it became the subject of a criminal investigation.
“Family members were coming in and they had a humongous bill to begin with but were being allowed to pay $10 or $20 on the bill, which means that that was never going to be collected and was going to continue to compound itself on a monthly basis to get even worse,” then Mayor Billy Broomfield told the Sun Herald.
Broomfield had estimated that about 13 percent of Moss Point residents had not been paying their water bills and another 7 percent had been stealing the services through illegal direct hookups to the city water system.
The city’s major income is from utilities revenue.
A grand jury indicted the women in December 2018. They pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge at the end of May.
The crimes occurred between March 26, 2015 and Aug. 29, 2016.
Special investigators with the State Auditor’s Office made the arrests after a state and federal investigation.
Felony embezzlement carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, a $5,000 fine or both.
Harkey ordered Bowens to pay $26,350 in restitution that accounts for the stolen money, interest, investigative costs, fines and fees. Benton owes $4,218 in restitution for the stolen funds, fines, fees, interest and investigative costs. Her attorney, Dustin Thomas, said Benton has already paid $2,000 on that amount.
Report suspicious activity involving possible fraud or embezzlement by government workers online at the state auditor’s website or by calling the State Auditor’s Office at 1-800-321-1275.