BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Former Caswell Beach Mayor Harry Simmons has pleaded guilty to charges relating to taking more than $673,000 in taxpayer money from a beach town group he led.
Simmons pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count each of felony embezzlement and felony obtaining property by false pretenses. More than a dozen other charges were dismissed as a result of the plea. He was sentenced to at least six years in prison but was given credit for time served.
From 2000 to 2014, Simmons stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Brunswick Beach Consortium, a group formed to lobby for support of coastal communities in the region. Brunswick County beach towns contributed over $1 million to the consortium during that time frame to pay for lobbying efforts by Washington, DC-based firm Marlowe & Company, LLC.
About $375,000 of those funds actually made it to the firm while Simmons took the rest for his own use.
District Attorney Jon David said Simmons was also double and sometimes triple billing entities for travel expenses to attend various conferences in North Carolina, New Orleans and Washington, DC. Caswell Beach officials were concerned they were making reimbursements for these expensive trips, so they contacted the DA's office.
After poring over thousands of pages of documents, what was uncovered was troubling.
"When we scratched below the surface, we found something much more sinister at play," David said. "A lot of people thought he was going above and beyond the call of duty for a small town mayor. I suppose he developed a rationale in his own mind (that) he was entitled to these funds."
Following Simmons' court hearing Wednesday, David said the investigation revealed all the money had been spent on a "lavish lifestyle," and at the time of his arrest, Simmons appeared to be almost penniless.
In court, Simmons read a letter of apology but added that despite his wrongdoing, Brunswick County received more than $100 million in federal funding for beaches during his time as head of the consortium.
Simmons was ordered to pay more than $600,000 in restitution to various towns and Brunswick County.
David said it's unlikely federal authorities will want to prosecute Simmons following Wednesday's sentencing, but if they do, his office will assist them. Any federal charges will likely be tax-related since Simmons didn't pay taxes on the embezzled money.
"Harry Simmons flagrantly exploited his position as an elected official," Caswell Beach Mayor Deborah Ahlers said. "Today, justice has been served."