WRAL Investigates

Ex-New Hanover ABC chief charged with fraud

Posted February 7, 2011

— The former New Hanover Alcoholic Beverage Control administrator was charged Monday with fraud in connection with a scheme to use public funds to pay for work on his home.

A New Hanover County grand jury indicted Billy Williams on a charge of obtaining property by false pretense. He was expected to be arraigned Tuesday morning in Wilmington.

Federal and state prosecutors said Wilmington contractor Lee Fitzgerald Cowper was hired in 2006 by the New Hanover ABC Board to build four liquor stores in the county. Around that same time, Williams hired Cowper to build a two-car garage at his home, prosecutors said.

Lee Cowper in court New Hanover ABC contractor pleads guilty to fraud

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.

Cowper, 59, of Wilmington, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Raleigh to one count of mail fraud in the case. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced in May, and he will likely have to repay the $43,860 as part of his sentence.

"The defendant’s corruption cheated the taxpayers of New Hanover County, and now he must pay for his crime,” U.S. Attorney George Holding said in a statement about Cowper.

"We are pleased that Mr. Cowper took responsibility for his role in the scheme. More work remains in the case against Williams," New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said in a statement.

Cowper's attorney, Joe Cheshire of Raleigh, said last month that the charge against the contractor was tied to a federal investigation of the New Hanover County ABC Board. State ABC officials said the New Hanover board also is under investigation at the state level.

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.

Williams retired a year ago. At the time, he was the highest-paid ABC officials 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 Williams stepped down. All members have since been replaced, and the new chairman recently told WRAL News that they are committed to transparency and accountability.

49 Comments

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  • mulligan013 Feb 9, 1:12 p.m.

    Off with his head!

  • unc70 Feb 8, 7:48 p.m.

    Your question is really "why are the COUNTIES in the liquor business?" History after Prohibition. Requiring voters pass referendum to enable for each county, the stores be under local control, and the profits are returned to county coffers were barely enough to overcome opposition sermons from the pulpits and moonshiner cash in the collection plates.

    The state is more a liquor distributor, taking its cut of profits along the way. Done in part because many liquor distributors back then were controlled by the Mob, willing to use Mob tactics against competitors, bars, and liquor stores. Keep the money in NC and the Mob out.

    State-wide wholesale pricing and consistent store hours and prices reduce competition between counties that would jeopardize the county revenue from ABC sales. This local revenue source and local control prevents any major change away from the current system.

    Competing privately-owned stores bring their own problems and abuses.

  • unc70 Feb 8, 7:48 p.m.

    Your question is really "why are the COUNTIES in the liquor business?" History after Prohibition. Requiring voters pass referendum to enable for each county, the stores be under local control, and the profits are returned to county coffers were barely enough to overcome opposition sermons from the pulpits and moonshiner cash in the collection plates.

    The state is more a liquor distributor, taking its cut of profits along the way. Done in part because many liquor distributors back then were controlled by the Mob, willing to use Mob tactics against competitors, bars, and liquor stores. Keep the money in NC and the Mob out.

    State-wide wholesale pricing and consistent store hours and prices reduce competition between counties that would jeopardize the county revenue from ABC sales. This local revenue source and local control prevents any major change away from the current system.

    Competing privately-owned stores bring their own problems and abuses.

  • CrewMax Feb 8, 5:33 p.m.

    Probably and isolated case, right?

  • Not_Time_Yet Feb 8, 4:59 p.m.

    The real question should be is why is the STATE in liquor business at all. Al Capone would have loved such a deal, legally eliminate ALL compettion,... No hitmen or machine guns necessary,...

  • Vietnam Vet Feb 8, 4:36 p.m.

    Yet another reason for taking the sale of alcohol out of the hands of the state and putting it in the hands of private enterprise where it should have been in the first place. State run liquor stores has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard of.

  • soccerus Feb 8, 4:04 p.m.

    Just think, within a year the Republicans will have our state running smoothly, out of debt, high paying jobs for all who need one and all the problems that only the Democrats have created will be solved. Wow, our saviors are finally here. Liquor stores will still be state controlled when this utopia arrives, I bet ya.

  • tritonlm6 Feb 8, 1:12 p.m.

    Dang. I bet $43k buys a sweet garage.

  • chris01236 Feb 7, 7:55 p.m.

    UNC70, Billy Williams is a registered Democrat. but this is not a dem/repub argument. i agree with the rest of what you say. but it's the democrats that have been running this state for over 100 years.

    The ABC should be handled by the free market. But Perdue (also a dem) won't allow it. this is just the instance that it was caught. free market couldn't sustain such blatant corruption.

  • retiredcfcc Feb 7, 7:52 p.m.

    Typical theive,typical NC politics. Should be punish to the fullest, but won't happen. Just waiting to see GOOD OLD BEV,come to the rescue. BETTER YET, WAITING FOR BEV's wrong doinds to be exposed. Give her time it will come out. She's just like Mikie boy.

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