Court says ‘no’ to Phillips

Published 1:57 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

Former Covington County Probate Judge Sherrie Phillips ran out of delay tactics yesterday when the Supreme Court of Alabama denied her request for certiorari, or review, of the case in which she was found guilty of felony theft and ethics charges last year.

A Covington County jury convicted Phillips of theft by deception of $1.8 million and intentionally using her official position for unlawful personal gain for herself or a family member almost a year ago, on Oct. 29, 2008. The state originally brought six counts of theft and ethics violations against her.

Phillips was sentenced in November, but was allowed to remain free on an appeals bond. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld her conviction in July. Phillips immediately requested a rehearing, which the appellate court denied in August.

She then appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which on Friday denied her request. Alabama Supreme Court Associate Justices Lyn Stuart, Champ Lyons Jr., Patricia Smith, Glenn Murdock and Greg Shaw concurred; Associate Justice Michael Bolin recused himself.

Phillips’ appellate bond requires her to surrender to the county sheriff within 15 days. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price sentenced her to two concurrent sentences of 10 years, which were split for her to serve three years incarceration followed by three years of supervised probation. By issuing a split sentence, Judge Price retaine jurisdiction over the case, which means he could enter an order to release Phillips before her three years are up.

The Investigations Division of the Alabama Attorney General’s office began investigating the case against Phillips in April of 2008.

The case involved the estate of a deceased man, Cary Douglas Piper of Castleberry in Conecuh County, who appeared at the time of his death in January of 2007 to have no heirs and no will.

The estate was probated in Covington County, even though state law requires an estate to be probated in the county in which a person lives, dies or owns property.

Phillips awarded $450,000 in administrative fees from the estate to Mary Drew Sullivan, whom Phillips named administrator of the estate, and $450,000 to Sullivan’s attorney, John Brock of Evergreen.

Meanwhile, Phillips placed a $1.8 million check from the estate in a personal account. Testimony during the trial revealed that Phillips used $516,917 from the account, paying off three loans at First Farm South Credit; purchasing a Cadillac Escalade for herself; paying for repairs at her home; and loaning or giving money to family members.

State investigators testified that Phillips was not in her office the day they went there with a search warrant for the Piper file and first began looking in to the case. There was no documentation of the $1.8 million in the file at that time.

Employees at the financial institution in which Phillips had placed the funds testified that she was waiting outside when they opened the following morning, and that she deposited $516,000 back in to the account. On that day, she also told an employee that the account should not have been listed as personal, but should have been a probate account.

Alabama law sets out a process called escheat in which assets of estates in which there are no known heirs are held for 20 years in case heirs appear. In court, Phillips claimed that the money from the estate was being escheated and that she had loaned it to family members in an effort to earn interest on it.

Sullivan and Brock both repaid $450,000 to the estate after being ordered to do so last summer by then-Special Probate Judge Lee Enzor. Brock has since pled guilty to misdemeanor perjury charges related to the case, and Sullivan has filed a civil suit against both Brock and Phillips.

When Phillips took the stand, defense attorney Riley Powell asked her if it had been her intent to steal the money.

“Not permanently and I intended to put it back,” she said.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Lisenby, chief of the AG’s Public Corruption and White Collar Crime Division, and Assistant Attorney General Ben Baxley tried the case for the state. Assistant Attorney General Andy Poole handled the appeal.