Former chief financial officer for the city of Columbus Milton Rawle will spend up to 20 years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections after pleading guilty Monday to embezzling nearly $290,000 in city funds.
Rawle, 49, was indicted for embezzlement last year after investigators found he moved $288,893.03 from city accounts to his own personal accounts between December 2016 and December 2018, investigators said.
Though Rawle’s attorney, Daniel Waide of Hattiesburg, pointed out that Rawle took responsibility by entering the open plea and would work to pay off what he owed the city, prosecutors couched the crime as a betrayal of the city, its employees and its taxpayers.
“I know the court is well aware of the public interest in this case (and) the negative impact this has on the city’s reputation,” said District Attorney Scott Colom, who prosecuted the case along with Assistant District Attorney Collen Hudson.
The maximum sentence for embezzlement of more than $25,000 is 20 years in prison. Presiding Circuit Judge Lee Coleman said he “couldn’t imagine” imposing less than the maximum sentence, given the amount of taxpayer funds Rawle admitted to taking.
“This is the worst case of embezzlement I’ve ever seen since I was put on the bench,” Coleman said.
City Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong testified during the sentencing hearing, calling Rawle a “con artist” whose fellow city employees totally relied on him.
“This has affected me emotionally greatly,” Armstrong said. “This has affected the mayor emotionally greatly.”
Mayor Robert Smith had planned to attend the hearing, Colom said, but is spending the week at home recovering after a visit to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle on Sunday. However, Colom said Smith sent a statement saying he felt “violated” by Rawle’s actions.
Waide declined to comment on Rawle’s behalf following the sentencing.
Since embezzlement is a non-violent offense, Rawle will be eligible for parole after five years.
Rawle was hired as CFO in 2013 and resigned in February 2019 after a 16-workday suspension for failing to alert city council members of the city’s steep deficit until November 2018. The city operated at a deficit exceeding $800,000 in both Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018, plunging its general fund balance to $2.3 million.
Following Rawle’s resignation, Wanda Holley, a certified public accountant with the Watkins, Ward and Stafford firm, found several discrepancies in the city’s FY 2018 audit report and turned it over to the State Auditor’s Office for investigation.
Coleman also directed Rawle to pay $108,388.20 in restitution. The rest of the money, $180,504.83, has been paid in surety bonds.
‘Should we have had a clue?’
During his testimony, Armstrong said he and other city employees first became suspicious of Rawle when the normally cash-strapped CFO began buying breakfast for his fellow employees and bought a “really nice” new truck. When asked how he got the money for the purchase, Armstrong said, Rawle replied a relative had left him some money and said, “I don’t want anybody to think I’m stealing money or anything.”
“When he said that, I think that’s when I started trusting my instincts,” Armstrong said.
However, Armstrong said, no one in the city government had any proof. He said people have said city employees should have caught Rawle earlier, and compared their criticisms to “armchair quarterbacking.”
It wasn’t until after Rawle served his 16-workday suspension in 2019 that Smith told him to resign or he would be fired, Armstrong said.
After Rawle’s resignation, the city hired CPA Mike Crowder as a consultant to handle financials until the city could hire another CFO. However, Armstrong said, Rawle had left the CFO’s office in such a “mess” that Crowder “spent most of his time trying to keep the ship afloat” and didn’t have the chance to locate the discrepancies Holley would find later.
Armstrong said he thought Rawle intentionally made a mess of the office — saying at one point that it looked like a tornado went through it — so that no one would find out about the embezzlement.
“Our finances were so screwed up and we didn’t have a clue,” Armstrong said. “Should we have had a clue? Maybe.”
Additionally, Armstrong said, Rawle labelled his unauthorized transfers as “payroll” and other labels that appeared to be city business, something else Armstrong said made Rawle hard to catch.
It wasn’t until the city hired Holley to go over the 2018 audit that she had the opportunity to obtain bank statements and find the discrepancies that led her to alert the State Auditor’s Office.
Armstrong said the damage Rawle did to the city was about more than embezzlement.
“He just put us in a really really bad financial (situation) and I’m not just talking about stealing the money,” he said. “… He wasn’t doing his job.”
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently involved in legal proceedings with the city of Columbus.