WRAL Investigates

Contractor gets probation in New Hanover ABC case

Posted September 22, 2011

— A Wilmington contractor who overbilled the New Hanover Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to help pay for work done at the former ABC administrator's home was sentenced Thursday to three years on probation.

Lee Fitzgerald Cowper, 60, pleaded guilty in February to mail fraud. U.S. District Judge James Dever also ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine.

"Mine was a terrible and judgmental error for which I take responsibility (and) for which I apologize," Cowper told Dever.

Federal and state prosecutors said the New Hanover ABC Board hired Cowper in 2006 to build four liquor stores in the county. Around that same time, former county ABC administrator Billy Williams hired Cowper to build a two-car garage at his home, prosecutors said.

Cowper submitted a phony invoice for paving work at the Porter's Neck ABC store to the New Hanover ABC Board in November 2006, padding his bill for construction of store by $43,860, federal prosecutors said. The amount of the overcharge was identical to what Williams owed Cowper for cost overruns on his garage, prosecutors said.

A sentencing memo filed with the federal court said Williams repeatedly asked Cowper to shift the cost of his home improvements to the ABC projects.

"I can't pay you, hide it in a job," Williams told him at one point.

Cowper resisted at first, taking large losses in his projects for Williams, before finally submitting the bogus bill on the Porter's Neck ABC store, according to the memo.

He has already reimbursed New Hanover ABC, the memo states.

ABC store sign, Alcoholic Beverage Control Contractor caught in investigation of New Hanover ABC

Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said Cowper tried to overbill the ABC board "out of an enormous amount of frustration and anger."

"This man has punished himself more than you can punish him," Cheshire told Dever.

Williams, who retired in early 2010, was convicted in state court last month on a charge of obtaining property by false pretense and was placed on probation for two years and ordered to pay a $21,930 fine.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Ontjes said Cowper played an instrumental role in Williams' conviction.

Dozens of people attended the court hearing to support Cowper, and about 150 wrote letters to the court to seek leniency.

"I think the judge here made right decision," supporter Bill Hale said after the hearing. "We were shocked when this all happened, but we still love the guy. We wrote letters. He's a fine gentleman. The judge said he made a mistake."

In the past two years, the New Hanover ABC Board came under fire for high salaries and building contracts that came in well over the estimated cost.

At the time Williams retired, he was the highest-paid ABC official in the state, with an annual salary of $232,000 along with a five-figure bonus.

The entire New Hanover ABC Board resigned about the same time that he stepped down.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • chevybelair57sd Sep 23, 2011

    In NC crime pays unless you're at the bottom of the scam, the crook at the rop got away clean just like all other state officials do. What a joke we have allowed this government to become.

  • superman Sep 23, 2011

    He is a fine dishonest crook. He was old enough to know what he was doing and he let his greed get the best of him.

  • airbornemonty Sep 22, 2011

    This crook only apologized because he got caught. But did anyone check to see if his fingers were crossed when he apologized?

    Now to Williams the biggest crook of the two. The two car garage cost, 43,860 dollars to build, he was fined 21,930 dollars.

    It seems to me that there is a discrepancy of 19,930 dollars that he stills owes for the garage. When is he going to pay the state tax payers the difference?

    They say that Williams was placed on probation for two years? What difference does probation make to someone that is retired, unless he Williams is planning something else to add to his already bloated retirement salary.

  • The Fox Sep 22, 2011

    [When are we going to get rid of the good old boys] It will never happen. You get rid of one crop and another set of good old boys or girls will fill the spots. It's the type of personalities that seek out these positions.

  • wildpig777 Sep 22, 2011

    face it folks --- im been sayin it for yrs now --NORTH CAROLINA IS TOTALLY CORRUPT.................. ANY OF YALL WONDER WHY?

  • edwardseddie28 Sep 22, 2011

    What about the cost of the garage it is stilled owed to the contractor.Why should Williams get a free garage, none of this would have happened if it was not for his greed.

  • u stand corrected Sep 22, 2011

    Our whole system financial, judicial, etc... is a joke now. No wonder people are commiting crime. Maybe it is easier to committ crime than work for a dollar anymore?!?!

  • u stand corrected Sep 22, 2011

    Does Williams get his retirement too?

  • u stand corrected Sep 22, 2011

    Make him repay! And pay the fines!!! cantsatndya I agree!!!

  • SmokeWagon Sep 22, 2011

    Probation, probation and probation...good thing their "good ol' boy club" dues where paid up...!!!! and Williams STILL collects his gubment' check every month...is there ANY WONDER no one has ANY respect whatsoever for lawyers, judges, politicians AND the law in this state...????