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.
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