BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Caswell Beach Mayor Harry Simmons is accused of using over $673,000 from a beach town group he led for his own personal use.
During a news conference Tuesday morning, District Attorney Jon David outlined the 18 felony charges of obtaining property by false pretense Simmons was indicted over the improper use of money paid to the Brunswick Beach Consortium.
SBI officials and Brunswick County deputies arrested Simmons Monday, and booked him in the Brunswick County Detention Center under a $1 million bond.
Simmons made his first court appearance at noon Tuesday. During the hearing, prosecutors said Simmons should be considered a flight risk because he had a packed bag and his dog was in a kennel when authorities arrested him. Simmons' attorney argued that his client has known about the investigation for a year.
The judge reduced Simmons bond to $675,000 and required him to reveal the source of the bond money to the court beforehand. Simmons must also surrender his passport, if he has one, and is not allowed to leave the state.
Simmons was the head of the consortium, which was formed in April 2000 by several Brunswick County beach communities to lobby Washington D.C. and the North Carolina General Assembly on coastal matters.
According to David, the beach towns, as well as Brunswick County, contributed around $1 million of taxpayer money to the group over a 15-year period.
Simmons has served as Caswell Beach mayor since 1999, but was stripped of his powers in Dec. 2014 by the town council over his involvement with the group.
It was revealed last year that Marlowe and Company, the firm Simmons told town leaders was lobbying for the consortium, ended its relationship with the group for lacking of payment in 2012 of $28,000.
Simmons will not seek re-election this year and Deborah Ahlers is the only candidate running for Caswell Beach mayor.
During Tuesday morning's court hearing, David said Simmons was funneling public money toward what he referred to as a "secret life."
According to search warrants, Simmons was evicted in April from a residence on Greenview Drive in Caswell Beach. Simmons reportedly left two recycle bins of trash outside the home after he left.
The owner of the property allowed investigators to search through the bins for any potential evidence.
Investigators say numerous financial records, including bank statements, tax returns, hotel and travel invoices were uncovered.
Investigators believe Simmons was facing an IRS audit for his 2007 and 2008 tax returns after deposits to Simmons' bank accounts exceeded his reported income during those years. Search warrants indicate he was facing additional taxes, penalties, and interest that totaled over $50,000.
Also located in the recycle bins was a business card for a company called Universal Photography that listed Harry Simmons as the owner/photographer. The card contained images of women, several of which were nude.
Investigators found seven "Standard Model Release" forms dating from 2003 to 2009. The forms discussed paying models between $225 and $400 for photographs. The models resided in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
An email exchange from October 2002 between Simmons and a known adult film actress was also uncovered. In the email, Simmons offered to pay the actress $750 in cash for oral sex, as well as "very basic modeling work," including clothed and nude.
Investigators interviewed the actress in September. She said she was out of the business and she confirmed she was the woman in the email exchange, but did not recall an encounter with Simmons. She told investigators that there's no reason to believe she didn't engage in the conduct Simmons allegedly requested.
Investigators conducted searches on the internet looking for websites connected to Universal Photography. On Model Mayhem, the company was reported to be a male with over 20 years experience in photography. The site included hundreds of photos of women, some of which could only be accessed by members of Model Mayhem or people over 18 years old.
Universal Photography's profile on Model Mayhem linked to a Flickr account which also contained hundreds of photos of women, including two photos of the adult film actress with a reference to 2002.
Investigators also found email printouts in the recycling bins that lists "pair Networks" fees of $57.31 related to the domain universal-photography.com with an email address of email@example.com.
Brunswick County leaders react to Simmons' arrest
Brunswick County beach town leaders met with David before Tuesday morning's news conference to discuss Simmons' indictment. Some of the leaders spoke briefly with WECT as they were leaving the courthouse.
"I'm still learning facts and (am) very disappointed," said Holden Beach Mayor Alan Holden. Caswell Beach Town Administrator Chad Hicks added, "Like Alan said, I think everybody's just kind of shocked."
Oak Island Mayor Betty Wallace says the Brunswick Beach Consortium has already been reformed into another consortium with lots of checks and balances. She says Oak Island will not be contributing money to the new group.
"We are going to move forward from this. These were the actions of one person out of hundreds of elected officials involved over 16 years," Wallace emphasized. "We're not going to let one person's actions affect what we do and affect our coastal issues."
Brunswick County released the following statement shortly after David's news conference:
Simmons had served as president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA).
Derek Brockbank, ASBPA Executive Director said Simmons tendered his resignation to the ASBPA Executive Committee effective immediately as a result of his Monday indictment.
Brockbank released the following statement regarding Simmons: