WRAL Investigates

Ex-New Hanover ABC chief charged with fraud

Posted February 7, 2011 11:21 a.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2011 3:50 p.m. EST

— 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.

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.