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Airport embezzlement case in hands of attorney general

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
May 21, 2002
State Auditor Phil Bryant and his staff responded to questions about ongoing Lauderdale County cases during a visit Monday to The Meridian Star.
Meridian Regional Airport: Investigator Jesse M. Bingham said a case involving missing money generated by parking fees at the airport has been transferred to Attorney General Mike Moore's office for possible criminal prosecution and recovery of the funds.
The story first made news in March 2001, when Mark Cowart, executive director of the Meridian Airport Authority, resigned amid allegations of embezzlement. The shortfall was discovered in February of the same year.
The Meridian Airport Authority had earlier put Cowart on probation for one year, ordered him to seek counseling, reduced his salary to $47,500 a year and ordered him to pay $5,000 in restitution.
The authority asked the state auditor's office to investigate shortly afterwards; Lauderdale County District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell said he asked to be recused from investigation or prosecution of the case because his cousin is married to Cowart.
Bryant said church officials have approached him about the situation, asking for "understanding and leniency" for Cowart.
Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Leary confirmed Monday that he has received the file from the auditor's office, and that a separate attorney general's investigation is complete. Leary would not comment on whether he would pursue a criminal indictment in Lauderdale County against Cowart.
Meridian Police Department: Bingham said a process is under way to recover money missing from the Meridian Police Department's front desk, where payment for parking tickets and other fines is received.
The process, Bingham said, is similar to the one employed in Clarke County to recover more than $40,000 embezzled by a former deputy Justice Court clerk.
In that instance, the auditor issued a "demand letter" for the missing money. Bingham's remark seems to indicate that a demand letter is likely in the MPD case.
The Meridian story first made news in July 2001, when money was discovered missing from bank deposits. A civilian employee, Vivian Groves, admitted stealing money between February and May 2001 and said police officer Rita Jack was her accomplice.
Both were fired. Police Chief Benny DuBose said Groves would not be criminally prosecuted. Jack's case was presented to a Lauderdale County grand jury in November, but the 18-member panel declined to indict her.
Jack maintains she is innocent and has appealed her termination to the Meridian Civil Service Commission. A hearing into the matter was convened May 2, and will continue July 25.
Weems Community Mental Health Center: Bryant declined to comment on an investigation into finances at Weems. The board of directors suspended Executive Director Emry Kennedy with pay on May 1. Kennedy has declined to comment, except to say that he stands on his record.