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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Caswell Beach mayor charged with embezzling beach lobbying funds

Harry Simmons
Harry Simmons

The mayor of Caswell Beach has been charged with embezzling more than $673,000 in taxpayer dollars, set aside as coastal lobbying funds for several Brunswick County beach towns, over a period of about 14 years.

Harry Quinton Simmons Jr., 62, made his first appearance Tuesday on more than 18 felony charges in Brunswick County Superior Court, where Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson reduced his bond from $1 million to $675,000 secured.

On Monday, Simmons was indicted by a Brunswick County grand jury on charges of four counts of obtaining property by false pretenses, seven counts of obtaining property by false pretenses of $100,000 or more, and seven counts of embezzlement of $100,000 or more, according to indictments.

After his indictment, Simmons was arrested in Brunswick County at about 4 p.m. Monday, according to District Attorney Jon David. Simmons was reportedly found by local and state authorities traveling in his vehicle with a packed suitcase, Assistant District Attorney Daniel Thurston said.

Simmons is charged with embezzling funds from several beach towns involved in the former Brunswick Beaches Consortium (BBC), an entity established as an “interlocal cooperation” per state law to represent various beach towns in the county, according to indictments.

The BBC was created in 2000 as a group of various municipalities including Caswell Beach, Bald Head Island, Holden Beach, Oak Island, Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach, as well as Brunswick County, Thurston said. The purpose of the entity was to fund lobbying efforts for waterways and sand renourishment for the area beach towns. While Sunset Beach was a part of BBC, the town did not contribute funds to the entity, he added.

Over the course of about 14 years, five municipalities and Brunswick County paid more than $1 million into the BBC for the purpose of state and federal lobbying efforts to Marlowe & Company, LLC, based out of Washington D.C., which is a registered lobbyist in that area, according to Thurston.

Of those funds, Simmons is charged with embezzling a total of $673,304 from BBC, according to indictments. The total funds included payments from each beach town and the county between April 25, 2000 and Sept. 19, 2014.

“I’d like to add that from the beginning the defendant was involved in the BBC as the chairman…and also the only person with signature authority over the BBC’s bank account,” Thurston said. “As such, he had absolutely complete control over the funds going into and funds exiting that particular account.”

Prosecutors allege Simmons made checks out to himself from the BBC account, a total embezzlement from which was calculated in the amount of $110,468 from the Town of Caswell Beach; $275,964 from Brunswick County; $48,847 from the Village of Bald Head Island; $50,861 from the Town of Ocean Isle Beach; $92,743 from the Town of Oak Island; and $94,418 from the Town of Holden Beach.

“Your Honor, that is an immense amount of money by any standards. But when you consider that some of these local beach communities are very small, the damage to the individual citizen as far as the tax dollars that were moved from their own pockets and put into the pockets of Harry Simmons are quite enormous,” Thurston said.

Based on the 2010 census the Town of Caswell Beach had a total full-time year-round population of 398 people, Thurston said.

“Considering that the town of Caswell Beach donated $110,352.50 — if you take the individual contribution per citizen of Caswell Beach — each one of them donated $420.48 toward the BBC,” Thurston said. “That’s $420 per person that they’re contributing to this effort and if you consider 66 percent of that money was put into Harry Simmons’ own pocket, we’re talking about, per citizen, $277.60 was stolen from each citizen of Caswell Beach…that’s just the citizens in Caswell Beach.”

Simmons reportedly informed the BBC that all of the funds would go to the lobbying company, Thurston said. While Simmons is charged with taking funds from BBC, prosecutors further allege he was “double dipping” on reimbursements for his travel expenses, he added.

According to indictments, Simmons is charged with obtaining property by false pretenses for allegedly taking expenses for travel from both N.C. Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association, Inc., and the Town of Caswell Beach for various trips to Washington D.C., Florida, Chicago, Illinois, and Atlanta, Georgia, between 2006 and 2007.

The District Attorney’s office began working the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) on the allegations in October 2014, Thurston said.

Concurrent with the start of SBI investigation in 2014, Caswell Beach Town Council reportedly became suspicious of the mayor’s activities, mayor pro tem Deborah Ahlers said. Council was conducting a routine review of the various organizations to which the town pays dues, including Brunswick Beaches Consortium.

“We had a meeting and were reviewing the organizations we belong and how much we pay and what we get out of it,” Ahlers recalled. “We were asking questions about the BBC because we were giving $12,000 a year for lobbyists and didn’t have any invoices. We had some questions. And since [Simmons] was executive director of the BBC, all questions were aimed at him. And he couldn’t answer them to our satisfaction.”

Those questions led council to vote in November 2014 to strip Simmons of his powers as mayor.

“He couldn’t vote, couldn’t write checks, couldn’t speak on behalf of the town,” Ahlers noted.

One power council members did not have legislative authority to take from him, she added, was his ability to run a public meeting. Ahlers said after that November vote, Simmons came to each meeting to read the agenda aloud.

Simmons is still technically Caswell Beach mayor and will remain as such until the upcoming municipal election in November. Ahlers, who has taken on all mayoral duties for the last 10 months, is running unopposed for the seat.

“Brunswick County is disappointed to hear there appears to be enough truth for the grand jury to issue indictments of Harry Simmons,” Brunswick County spokeswoman Amanda Hutcheson said. “We acknowledge that the county misplaced our trust in Mr. Simmons, who has been a long-time advocate for Brunswick County beaches. The county has continuously worked to strengthen the fiscal controls over expenditures to partner organizations.”

The county’s contributions to the former Brunswick Beaches Consortium were approximately $30,000 per year since 2000, Hutcheson said. According to indictments, the county’s total contributions over the course of the state’s allegations against Simmons are about $418,000.

Watson ordered that should Simmons post his new bond, he would be required to turn in his passport. He can leave Brunswick County but must remain in the state of North Carolina, and cannot handle funds for any government position or non-profit agency.

Thurston said search warrants have been obtained and further charges may come about as the SBI continues to investigate the case. Attorney Mike Ramos has been appointed by the court to represent Simmons in the case.

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