ABERDEEN – Outgoing Mayor Maurice Howard, 36, pleaded guilty to embezzlement by a public official Monday in Monroe County Circuit Court.
Judge John White sentenced his removal from office and 10 years in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody with the time being suspended. He will not serve any jail time. Howard was also ordered to repay court costs of $431.50, a bond fee of $200 and the victim’s bond fee of $10, in addition to restitution in the amount of $8,226 to Old Republic Surety Company of Milwaukee.
There is no minimum sentence on the charge, but the maximum is 20 years with a $5,000 fine.
The criminal charges were brought forth by the Mississippi State Auditor’s office. They stem from trips he was reimbursed for in 2017 with taxpayer funds that he never took.
According to original court documents, the trips were to a Mississippi Development Authority class in Jackson and an economic development event in Saginaw, Michigan, both in April 2017; a trip in July 2017 to Atlanta regarding a Huddle House investment; a Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway conference in Point Clear, Alabama in 2017; and a trip to the Governor’s Conference in Jackson in 2017.
Howard was indicted on the charges in October 2019.
In a press release after Howard’s sentencing, State Auditor Shad White issued the following statement regarding the court proceedings.
“I am pleased this morning that Mr. Howard, who stole from the people of Aberdeen, has been removed from office and has pleaded guilty to a felony. When a politician takes public money for their own benefit and lies about it, it’s important to remember there are victims. The victims are the taxpayers and people of the city. I’m grateful for the work of the district attorney’s office and my investigators for bringing this case to a conclusion,” he said.
The press release noted suspected fraud can be reported to the auditor’s office online any time by clicking the red button at www.osa.ms.gov or via telephone during normal business hours at (800) 321-1275.
Howard’s court case has been continued twice – last February and last December. The first time was due to parties needing more time to review discovery in preparation for the trial. The second continuance was granted weeks after Howard’s previous attorney, John Robbins of Tupelo, was disbarred.
Howard then retained Michael Todd Sterling of Atlanta and Carlos Tanner III of Jackson. They were allowed more time to prepare for the case.
“I got the chance to know Mr. Howard pretty well over the last few weeks. I think he’s an asset to his community, a dedicated father and a dedicated husband and he intends to use his second chance to better his community,” Sterling told Judge White during court proceedings.
During Monday’s court appearance, Sterling and Eric Tanner represented Howard. Howard did not add any comments to the judge.
The embezzlement case was originally set to be a jury trial this week.
Ahead of the 18-minute court case, Howard, who pastors Message in Me, announced during his Sunday service he planned on resigning from office sometime in 2021, adding he would pastor full time.
Vice Mayor Lady B. Garth will serve as interim mayor until a special election can be held and the next mayor is sworn in to office.
Howard, the first African-American to be elected to two consecutive terms as mayor in Aberdeen’s history, began his second term last summer.
He was first elected as mayor in 2016. He lost the mayor’s race against Cecil Belle in 2012.