ATLANTA - A former aide to Mississippi's treasurer has begun serving a four-year state prison term after being convicted of embezzling $238,000 of bearer bonds.
Michael G. Howell, the director of the state Treasury's bond division between 1986 and 1990, reported to a detention center in Hinds County, Miss., on Aug. 4 to begin his sentence, a spokeswoman for the county's circuit court said Friday. The spokeswoman said that on July 21 Judge L. Breland Hilburn handed down a 10-year prison term that suspended six years of the sentence, reducing the maximum time to be served to four years. Upon his release, she said, Mr. Howell will be on probation for three years.
In February, following a four-month state investigation, Mr. Howell was indicted on four counts of embezzlement, three counts of conspiracy to embezzle, and one count of fraud.
According to the indictment, Mr. Howell cashed coupon payments due to holders of state bearer bonds after the payments had been made to legitimate holders. Mr. Howell was able to cash in the bonds, the indictment said, by concealing the original payments and setting up dummy corporations to receive the fraudulent payments.
In June, Mr. Howell pleaded guilty to a single count of embezzlement and the state dropped the other charges.
"Justice has been served," state Treasurer Marshall Bennett said Friday. "I think there has been sufficient punishment to be a deterrent."
Mr. Bennett, the state's treasurer since 1988, said Mississippi has recovered about 220,000 of the money lost in the embezzlement scheme by cashing in on performance bonds that insure the state against loss resulting from employees' actions. He said the remaining money due would be collected after a sale of property owned by Mr. Howell is completed.
He noted that Mr. Howell has also been assessed interest and investigative costs that total about $90,000.
The treasurer said that because of the embezzlement scheme, his office has changed its procedures for payment on bearer bonds. Previously only the director of bond operations had been required to sign off when these bonds were cashed in. Now four levels of review are required before payment, he said.
Mr. Bennett also said the Treasury will now conduct a full audit every year of debt service payments on these bonds. Bearer bonds, for which interest and principal is paid directly to the bearer, have not been issued in the state since 1983.
"We feel there are now adequate safeguards in place to prevent this from ever happening again," he said. The lack of computerized records in the treasurer's office until 1990 facilitated the scheme, he added.
Before Judge Hilburn announced his sentence, Mr. Howell said he regretted his actions.
"If there is any public official listening to me right now, it is not worth losing everything you've got," he said, according to court records.
The Hinds County grand jury that indicted Mr. Howell has also charged three others in connection with the bond embezzlement scheme. Mr. Howell's half-brother Eric Hopkins, Amos C. Henderson, and William C. Long were each indicted on one count of conspiracy to embezzle.
On June 29, Mr. Hopkins pleaded guilty and received two years' probation and a $50-a-month fine for the period, according to the court spokeswoman. On Aug. 3, Mr. Henderson pleaded guilty, but will not be sentenced until Oct. 10, the spokeswoman said. Mr. Long's case is still pending, she said.
Walter Wood, the lawyer representing Mr. Howell, did not return phone calls. Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Henderson, and Mr. Long could not be reached for comment.