Hus­band, wife both get prison for fraud

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - BRAN­DON MULDER

Chief U.S. Dis­trict Judge Brian Miller on Fri­day sen­tenced two pub­lic hous­ing of­fi­cials who pleaded guilty last fall to charges re­lated to a 13-year scheme through which they em­bez­zled hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in fed­eral funds.

Rhonda and Gary Williams of Des Arc ran the Cotton Plant Hous­ing Au­thor­ity un­til their scheme was dis­cov­ered by fed­eral IRS in­ves­ti­ga­tors last Septem­ber. Rhonda Williams served as the hous­ing agency’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, while her hus­band was the agency’s main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor.

Although the cou­ple had pleaded guilty to the same charges in the em­bez­zle­ment scheme — con­spir­acy to com­mit bank fraud and en­gag­ing in un­law­ful mon­e­tary trans­ac­tions — Miller con­sid­ered their sen­tences one by one.

He or­dered Rhonda Williams to serve three years in fed­eral prison and Gary Williams to serve two years, fol­lowed by three years of su­per­vised pro­ba­tion for each. The cou­ple also was jointly or­dered to pay resti­tu­tion of $732,177.80 and to for­feit $145,000 in cash seized from their home, the money in four bank ac­counts, a boat and a sport util­ity ve­hi­cle.

At­tor­ney Hu­bert Alexan­der asked the judge for a two-year sen­tence for each of them, ar­gu­ing that be­cause they had al­ready paid back all money stolen through as­set and cash for­fei­tures — “the gov­ern­ment took ev­ery­thing they owned at their house,” Alexan­der said — they should be granted a vari­ance from sen­tenc­ing guide­lines.

“Let them go in to­gether, get out to­gether and get their life straight again,” Alexan­der said. “They are not bad peo­ple; they’ve just made some bad mis­takes.”

But Miller de­clined to ac­cept Alexan­der’s ar­gu­ment.

“Just be­cause peo­ple have means to pay back the loss does not buy their way out of prison,” he said.

Miller ul­ti­mately sided with As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Cameron McCree who ar­gued that be­cause Rhonda Williams, 50, was the agency’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and had sole au­thor­ity over the au­thor­ity’s spend­ing, she is more cul­pa­ble in the crime and should re­ceive a sen­tence within the sen­tenc­ing guide­lines.

“I think 37 months for 13 years of theft — ac­tu­ally, I think the guide­lines are kind of low on this,” Miller said.

Gary Williams, 59, was seen by pros­e­cu­tors as play­ing more of an as­sist­ing role in the com­mit­ment of the crimes and was thus sen­tenced to one year less than his wife.

Be­fore is­su­ing the sen­tences, Miller gave each of the de­fen­dants a chance to chime in.

“I made some mis­takes and I’m sorry for it,” Gary Williams said.

He said he was “hold­ing down two jobs work­ing seven days a week” to sup­port his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his adul­t­aged daugh­ter and 14-year-old son, both of whom were sit­ting in the back of the court­room wit­ness­ing the is­suance of their par­ents’ fate.

“I’m sorry, and mis­takes were made, but I ask you to not take me from my fam­ily for three years,” Rhonda Williams said through tears. “They’re all I got.”

The cou­ple’s chil­dren were also fight­ing back tears as they watched their mother plead over the length of her sen­tence.

“If I could not send some­body be­cause of fam­ily obli­ga­tions I could not send any­body to prison,” Miller said, ex­plain­ing that even those who com­mit the most egre­gious of crimes have fam­i­lies that judges can­not con­sider when de­ter­min­ing a sen­tence.

Lastly, Alexan­der asked Miller to al­low the cou­ple to serve their sen­tences in suc­ces­sion so at least one par­ent could be home to raise their 14-year-old son.

Miller over­ruled that re­quest, say­ing “I’ve never done that be­fore,” and in­stead al­lowed them time to make liv­ing ar­range­ments for their son with a fam­ily mem­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, be­tween 2001 and 2014 the Wil­liamses em­ployed sev­eral meth­ods for skim­ming funds al­lo­cated to the hous­ing au­thor­ity through the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing through bribery and kick­back schemes.

In Septem­ber, the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice of the Eastern Dis­trict of Arkansas re­ported that the cou­ple had fraud­u­lently ob­tained $52,000 by us­ing the au­thor­ity’s funds to pay for per­sonal ex­penses. How­ever, fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered nu­mer­ous other meth­ods through which the cou­ple was de­fraud­ing the hous­ing depart­ment, of­fi­cials said.

Ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings, the cou­ple ad­mit­ted to ob­tain­ing $53,000 by wrong­fully billing the Hous­ing Au­thor­ity for cab­i­net work and “hid­ing their in­volve­ment by sub­mit­ting the billing through third par­ties.”

The cou­ple in­curred an­other $17,000 by re­ceiv­ing unau­tho­rized re­im­burse­ments for travel ex­penses paid to Rhonda Williams, and more than $15,000 by us­ing the au­thor­ity’s credit card to pay for per­sonal ex­penses, in­clud­ing fuel and var­i­ous mer­chan­dise.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors also found that nearly $200,000 was fun­neled into the cou­ple’s re­tire­ment ac­counts with­out proper ap­proval by the au­thor­ity’s board of com­mis­sion­ers. Among other things, an­other $23,000 of hous­ing dol­lars had pur­chased items like cherry cab­i­nets, heat­ing and cool­ing units and a whirlpool bath­tub for their own res­i­dence.

The doc­u­ments also list nu­mer­ous other mis­cel­la­neous pay­ments to the pair from the hous­ing agency.

The Cotton Plant Hous­ing Au­thor­ity in Woodruff County man­ages 50 units of pub­lic hous­ing that ac­com­mo­date 175 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the au­thor­ity.

“I made some mis­takes and I’m sorry for it.”

— Gary Williams, hous­ing au­thor­ity’s for­mer main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor

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