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Former Cherryville police chief will plead guilty to embezzlement

CHERRYVILLE For nearly a year, Cherryville’s former police chief instructed the city’s then-finance director to issue checks to buy firearms from a sporting goods store for his personal use, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Woody Burgess, the former chief, said the purchases were to make up for “compensatory time.” But authorities say Burgess knew he wasn’t allowed to get cash payments.

In total, he embezzled more than $11,000 in nine checks and has agreed to plead guilty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Monday.

The plea deal comes months after scandal rocked the Cherryville Police Department and City Hall.

Cherryville Mayor Bob Austell was disappointed to hear of the charge against Burgess, calling it “another part of the cleaning up of something that’s been there for years.”

“I’ve known Woody all his life and I hate this for him and his family and the community,” Austell said. “It’s just a sad thing, it really is. But people know right from wrong. They make their decisions and have to serve the consequences.”

Burgess faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both. His first appearance and plea hearing are set for 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Cherryville became the focus of national attention in October when FBI agents began a roundup that netted six men, including three Cherryville officers and a Gaston County sheriff’s deputy. They were accused of providing protection to trucks carrying stolen goods and cash. All have pleaded guilty.

Burgess was suspended and later retired.

In January, the former Cherryville finance director Bonny Alexander pleaded guilty to five counts of program embezzlement for stealing more than $435,000 from the city. She faces a maximum term of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count. A sentencing date has not been set.

According to the criminal bill of information and plea agreement filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Burgess embezzled and caused Alexander to embezzle approximately $11,048 of the city’s funds.

As finance director, Alexander had authority to process payroll payments to Cherryville employees, direct payments for city expenses and issue checks on behalf of the city.

Court records show that beginning in January 2007 through November 2008, Burgess instructed Alexander to issue approximately nine Cherryville city checks payable to “The Great Outdoors, Inc.” to buy firearms for Burgess’ personal use.

According to the charging document, Burgess told Alexander that the checks and the expenditure of the city’s funds for personal use had been authorized as a “cash-out” for “compensatory time.”

Court records show that Alexander issued the checks as requested by Burgess and placed entries in the city’s accounting records that the expenditures were for a certain amount of “sick time” or “comp time” due to “Woody.”

According to court documents, Burgess was aware that he was not entitled to cash payments for sick or vacation leave or compensatory time. In addition, Burgess knew that no hours were deducted from his sick or vacation leave balances for the city’s purchase of guns for his personal use.

Burgess must forfeit to the federal government all property and currency involved in the offense charged in the charging document, and all property and currency which are proceeds of such offense, including approximately $8,490 in cash, and three firearms seized during the investigation.

He has agreed to pay full restitution, the amount of which will be determined by the court at sentencing, according to the filed plea agreement.

In a release, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said: “Woody Burgess was sworn to uphold the law, but instead thought he was above the law. While prosecuting a law enforcement officer is always difficult, my office will not allow the likes of Woody Burgess to dishonor the uniform proudly worn by all other Cherryville police officers who are dedicated to serving and protecting their community.”

John Strong, special agent in charge of the FBI in Charlotte, said, “It is both disappointing and disheartening to learn a senior law enforcement officer took advantage of his trusted position for his own profit.”

Since the scandal first broke, the specter of more charges related to the police department has been hanging over Cherryville.

“We were waiting for it to happen,” Austell said. “But we didn’t know the details.”

Cherryville has been trying to move forward. Oversight measures now in place include an audit committee that will go beyond state audit requirements. Also, a whistle-blower policy has been established in the finance department.

New employees include Finance Director Dixie Wall, City Clerk Paige Green and City Manager Ben Blackburn. In March, the city hired a new police chief, Chad Hawkins, formerly with the Gastonia Police Department.

“Our new chief is an outstanding individual,” Austell said. “He’s going a long way to restore respect and enthusiasm with the people left in the police department. He’s got things going in the right direction.” Staff Researcher Maria David contributed

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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