GULFPORT — A multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud Hancock Bank’s Ocean Springs main branch began when former branch operations manager Margaret Migues worked as a bank teller, later recruiting co-worker Willie Doris Burney to participate in the conspiracy that eventually grew to include two other former employees, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Morgan said.
That and other new details about the scheme, which started in the 1980s and ended in July 2009, came out in U.S. District Court on June 10 when Burney, 62, pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
The charge carries a sentence of up to 30 years and up to a $1 million fine, though Burney has entered into a plea agreement with the government.
“I believe I speak for the other 2,200 Hancock Bank employees in saying that we are pleased with and completely support the federal government’s investigation and prosecution of someone who has betrayed the trust of our customers and our associates,” Hancock Bank attorney Joy Lambert Phillips said.
“Hancock Bank was founded on the principles of honor and integrity. Thus, we have worked diligently to ensure that all affected customers have been paid in full, including interest.
“We were glad we could be present to hear Doris Burney plead guilty today in federal court to the charges brought against her by the U.S. Attorney’s office.”
Migues already has pleaded guilty to embezzlement. Both women are now scheduled for sentencing Aug. 24. Each remains free on a $25,000 unsecured bond.
The embezzlement scheme started around 1982 when Migues and Burney started working side-by-side as bank tellers. To continue the scheme once Migues was promoted to branch operations manager at the Ocean Springs main branch, Morgan said, Burney turned down promotions to keep her job as a teller working on the front lines.
The two women, along with two unnamed co-conspirators, Morgan said, stole money from the accounts of elderly people they’d befriended.
An independent audit showed a total of $2,386.451.84 stolen from customer accounts between 1995 and July 2009. There were no records before 1995 so the amount embezzled from early 1980 to 1995 is unknown.
All the victims, a total of 44, were between the ages of 71 and 102.
Some of the victims, Morgan said, had died by the time the missing money was discovered and, as a result, their heirs did not receive at the time all the money due those estates.
For years, Morgan said, Migues and Burney, along with the other alleged co-conspirators, hid what they were doing by changing the mailing address on victims’ bank statements to read “do not mail out” or “route to Ocean Springs main branch,” so victims wouldn’t see their statements.
To further conceal the scheme only Migues and Burney and the two other alleged co-conspirators would handle the victims’ transactions, making any necessary changes to the accounts.
In many cases, she said, that would involve the transfer of money from one customer’s account to another; at other times that meant simply cashing cashier’s checks using fraudulent names.
Migues kept track of the embezzled money in a handwritten ledger, Morgan said, so she’d know what the balances on the affected accounts were supposed to be should questions arise.
Only Burney and Migues reportedly handled the ledger entries in an effort to cover up the scheme.
None of the workers involved in the scheme, Morgan said, would take time off at the same time to ensure they could continue the cover-up.
Burney told authorities one of the other co-conspirators had been fired from the bank years earlier for theft of money, but she’d participated in the embezzlement scheme and continued to get shares of the stolen money as a means to keep her quiet.
Burney, Morgan said, met with the fired employee in various parking lots to pay her hush money, usually $1,000 per visit.
On at least one occasion Burney paid the fired employee while they sat in Burney’s car in the bank parking lot.
The last time Burney met with the fired employee, Morgan said, she handed the woman an envelope with a note that read, “There’s no more money. Don’t ask.”
The federal investigation, first prompted after a federal agent noticed money missing from his mother’s account, had surfaced.
In addition, Morgan said, Burney named Migues as the leader of the scheme and said Migues used her share of the cash to buy new cars, and to send one of her sons to medical school and the other to college.
Burney, who said she’s suffering from breast cancer, also told investigators Migues paid off her own home.
Burney claimed, Morgan said, she received between $100,000 and $150,000 over the years, though the government alleges the women divided the money equally, giving the two other alleged co-conspirators considerably less for their participation.
Morgan said the fired employee has since admitted her involvement in the scheme; the other unnamed co-conspirator has denied any knowledge of what happened.
Any charges against those employees have not yet been released, though they are expected to come.
Hancock Bank CEO Carl Chaney first alerted the Sun Herald to the alleged scheme in July, when bank officials abruptly fired Migues and Burney amid the federal investigation.
Hancock Bank officials maintain they have repaid with interest all of the victimized customers.
The FBI is in charge of the investigation.