Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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.