Crime

Coast state workers embezzled thousands and still owe, report says. Here’s a list.

A former justice court clerk in Hancock County, a former school district police chief in Biloxi and former credit union attorney in Jackson County are among the 24 state workers in South Mississippi who owe the state tens of thousands of dollars.

The majority are accused of embezzling money and property and misappropriation or misuse of government funds.

Some of the accused are in prison or awaiting trial.

The South Mississippi cases came out in State Auditor Shad White’s annual report, released Monday, on the status of case where money is owed for criminal conduct and misuse of public funds. Collectively, they owed $1.8 million by the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

According to the report, about $1.9 million was still owed in South Mississippi by end of the current fiscal year in June.

Statewide, the report says, about $1.5 million was paid, with another $4,576 recovered to cover the costs of missing equipment.

The annual report is based on the status of formal and informal monetary demands in recent years.

Here’s the latest on the demands in South Mississippi from the state’s law enforcement division:

Mississippi Military Department

  • Former MS Youth Challenge Dining Facility Manager Jerry Howard, embezzlement, $157,385.40. On Dec. 29, 2015, Howard pleaded guilty to a charge of felony embezzlement and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with eight years to serve and five years under post-release supervision. On Aug. 22, 2016, he was ordered to pay $100,461 in restitution to the Camp Shelby Youth Challenge Program and $56,923 to the state auditor’s office. In the 2019 fiscal year, Howard has paid $300, leaving a outstanding balance of $156,960.

George County

  • Former JROTC instructor Sgt. Kevin Mardis, misuse of public funds, $13,480. On Oct. 19, 2015, Mardis pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was placed on 3 years of non-adjudicated probation, with orders to pay $6,740 in restitution to the George County school system and $6,740 to the state auditor’s office. At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, he still owed $5,400.

Hancock County

  • Former Deputy Justice Court Clerk Dana Beaman, embezzlement, $197,408. On July 28, 2017, Beaman was indicted on four counts of embezzlement, with orders to pay $197,408 in restitution. In fiscal year, 2018, the bond company made a $100,000 payment, leaving a balance of $97,408. A criminal trial is pending.

Harrison County

  • Gulfport School District Contractor Louis O’Bannon, misappropriation of funds, $50,000. An improper contract resulted in a demand to pay $50,000. In fiscal year 2018, $5,000 was paid, leaving a balance of $45,000. No payment was made in fiscal year 2019.
  • Former Harrison County School District bookkeeper Rita Franke, misappropriation of funds, $4,990. On April 30, 2019, she was ordered to pay $4,990. No payments were made in the 2019 fiscal year.
  • Former Biloxi School District Police Chief Paul Cannette, embezzlement, $244,819. Cannette was indicted on a felony embezzlement charge in November 2017 and was ordered to pay the full amount in restitution. On Aug. 23, 2018, a judge sentenced Cannette to 10 years in prison, with 5 1/2 years to serve and orders to pay $10,000 in restitution by Aug. 31, 2018. In fiscal year 2019, he made a $10,000 payment, leaving a balance of $234,819.78.
  • Former Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Executive Director William “Bill” Walker, embezzlement, A formal demand in the amount of $362,689 was issued in November 2013. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement charge. A judge fined him $125,000 and ordered him to pay $572,689, with he and his son, Scott Walker, ordered to pay $210,000 of the total amount of restitution. In the 2019 fiscal year, Walker paid $25,839, leaving a balance of $359,881.
  • Former MDMR Chief of Staff Joseph Ziegler Jr., misuse of public funds, $258,268. In November 2013, a formal demand was issued for $258,268. In fiscal year 2019, Ziegler paid $13,000, leaving a balance of $193,962.
  • Former Gulf Coast Community Action Agency Deputy Director Linda Harvey-Irvin, bribery, $531,236. In February 2015, Harvey-Irvin pleaded guilty to bribery. She owes $531,236 in restitution to be paid jointly and severally with Markuntala Croom. The full amount is still outstanding.
  • Gulf Coast Community Action Agency vendor 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. No payments have been made.
  • Gulf Coast Community Action Agency vendor 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. The full amount is still outstanding.

Gulfport

  • Former Utility Cashier Courtney Page, misuse of public funds, $3,106. In August 2016, a former demand was issued for $3,106. Full restitution is still owed.
  • Former South Mississippi Regional Center Director Pam Baker, overpayments to staff, $423,801. A formal demand for $423,801 was issued in June 2012. No payments have been made.

Jackson County

  • Former Ocean Springs Public Works Director Andre Kaufman, misappropriation of funds, $38,863. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Kaufman on any charge. No payments have been made. Kaufman’s attorney, Dustin Thomas, said he wrote letter to the State Auditor’s Office to say Kaufman and former Ocean Springs city employee Allan Ladnier did not owe the civil demands and he thought the matter was resolved. The state Auditor’s Office said the demand remains.
  • Former Ocean Springs city employee Allan Ladnier, misappropriation of funds, $9,296. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Ladnier on any charge in March 2017. In August 2018, a formal demand for $9,296 was issued. No payments have been made. Attorney Dustin Thomas said he wrote the state Auditor’s Office to say Ladnier did not owe the civil demand. The state Auditor’s Officed said the civil demand remains.
  • Former Moss Point Utility Clerk Lakeshia Benton, embezzlement, $4,218. A formal demand for full restitution was made in January 2019. In fiscal year 2019, the city’s bond company paid full restitution.
  • Former Moss Point Utility Supervisor Kenya Bowens, embezzlement, $26,350. The bond company has made full restitution.
  • Former Jackson County Emergency Services employee Roger Gibson, conspiracy and fraud, $3,912. A formal demand for full restitution was made in December 2016. A grand jury indicted Gibson on both charges. In fiscal year 2018, $2,297 was paid, leaving a balance of $1,614. The case was not prosecuted. He has made no payments in fiscal year 2019.
  • Former Jackson County Emergency Services employee Cheryl McLeod, conspiracy and fraud, $1,148. Though she was indicted on both charges, the case was not prosecuted. A formal demand for full restitution remained. No payments were made in fiscal year 2019.
  • Former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office employee Cherie Ward, felony embezzlement, $2,970. In November 2017, a formal demand for full restitution was made. In October 2018, the charge was reduced a misdemeanor offense and she received a suspended sentence as long she violated no state or county laws, pay $100 in court costs and full restitution. In fiscal year 2019, $1,330 was paid, leaving a balance of $1,636.
  • Keys Vocational Center former Bookkeeper Linda Smeby, embezzlement, $9,113. In May 2013, Smeby pleaded guilty to embezzlement and placed on five year probation with orders to pay full restitution in monthly payments of $100. In fiscal year 2019, she made no payments.
  • Singing River Credit Union Attorney Thomas “Tommy” Robertson, embezzlement, $60,000. Robertson pleaded guilty to embezzlement in June 2016 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with two years to serve and eight years suspended. He had paid $16,000 back, leaving him a balance of $44,000. The State Auditor’s investigation showed a total loss of $493,054. Robertson made no payments in fiscal year 2019.

Pascagoula

  • Former City Comptroller Robert Parker, misappropriation of funds, $47,395. In May, a formal demand for full restitution was made. No payments have been made.
  • Former Pascagoula City Manager Robert Huffman, $6,819, misappropriation of funds. A formal demand for full restitution was made in May. The full amount has been paid.

Pearl River County

  • Former Pearl River County School District Bookkeeper Darlene Comesana, embezzlement, $92,394. In March 2012, a formal demand in the full amount was issued. She did not make any payments in fiscal year 2019.

See the full report here.

Margaret Baker is an investigative reporter whose search for truth exposed corrupt sheriffs, a police chief and various jailers and led to the first prosecution of a federal hate crime for the murder of a transgendered person. She worked on the Sun Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina team. When she pursues a big story, she is relentless.
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