Embezzlement Case

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 25, 2012

Embezzlement case gets court date after two years

By Billy Davis

The month of June will mark two years since Odessa Johnson’s embezzlement case was sent to a DeSoto County circuit court judge after two other judges recused themselves.

Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale said this week the case will be heard in DeSoto County on July 23 if Johnson decides to plead guilty to embezzlement.

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If Johnson wants a trial, it will be in August in Sardis, Hale said.

Chamberlin will preside over the hearing or the trial, Hale said.  

Johnson was city clerk for the City of Sardis when she resigned in June 2009 after a state audit investigation alleged she had stolen approximately $28,000 from city government from 2006 to 2009.

Court documents allege Johnson shorted or withheld approximately $13,470 from City of Sardis deposits into collections for water bills, court fines and property taxes.

The state investigation also alleged Johnson embezzled four lease payments from Skipper Marine; stole six contributions from Springs Industries for the Sardis Police Department; and used the city’s credit card for personal use on three separate occasions.

Johnson has pleaded not guilty to one count of embezzlement and hired Greenville attorney Derrick Simmons in 2010.

Simmons did not return phone calls seeking comment about the case.

Johnson started employment as city clerk in 2001. She is sister of Supervisor Vernice Avant.
Sardis aldermen discussed the lingering case at a city meeting last week, prompting The Panolian to inquire about its status.

City of Sardis officials have called court officials about the slow-moving case over the past two years, one Sardis official told The Panolian this week.   

“We’re pulling our hair out wondering why the case is taking so long,” said the one official of the cash-strapped town.

Hale, who was aware The Panolian was publishing a story about the case, called the newspaper Thursday to say a date had been set for a plea appearance or a trial.

Hale said court officials agreed on a court date after the Mississippi legislature finished its most recent session earlier this month.

Simmons is a state senator and state law allows court cases to be delayed if a client’s attorney is serving in the legislature.

Johnson was indicted by a Panola County grand jury in January 2010 then, a month later, Circuit Judge Jimmy McClure set the case for trial later that summer. But the following June McClure recused himself because he had served as municipal court judge while Johnson served as city clerk.

The embezzlement case was reassigned to now-retired Judge Andrew Baker, who recused himself just days after McClure did.

Baker stated in his court order that he had overseen a court hearing for Odessa Johnson’s son in which the son’s father demonstrated against the judge outside the courtroom. That court hearing occurred in 2009.
Baker wrote that he was stepping aside to avoid the appearance of impropriety and was reassigning the case to Judge Chamberlin.

Baker’s recusal order from June 2010 is the most recent document in Johnson’s court file, located in the circuit clerk’s office in Sardis.

Chamberlin’s office did not respond to a phone call from The Panolian.

Asked about the two-year span earlier this week, Hale noted that two judges have recused themselves before the case was assigned to Chamberlin, suggesting that has caused some delay.   

Hale also noted that Simmons serves in the legislature and cited the state law allowing court cases to be delayed.

Hale also said he has discussed the court case in recent weeks with Tommy Shuler, the attorney for the City of Sardis.

Shuler on at least two occasions had explained the case’s status, as related by Hale, to the Sardis Board.
District Attorney John Champion, asked about the case, told The Panolian he was unaware of the court case’s status and directed any inquiries to Hale.

The State Auditor’s office alleges Johnson owed $45,496, which includes $7,586 in interest expenses, and $9,876 in investigation costs.

The state agency recorded that Johnson has paid back $5,000 and still owes $40,496 according to court documents.

A state investigator who interviewed Johnson said she was “very cooperative” and admitted to taking money to use for personal expenses after her husband lost his job.