Guy Thompson’s long career of leadership in community sharing turned to shame on Thursday when he pleaded guilty to 23 counts of embezzling money from Santa Rosa’s now-defunct United Way chapter and evading taxes on his illegal income.
In the wake of a joint probe by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service that began last October, Thompson admitted in Pensacola’s U.S. District Court on Thursday to stealing more than $650,000 between 2011 and 2018 from the charity he had been entrusted to run.
United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Lawrence Keefe said in a prepared statement that his office has already seized $221,000 from Thompson’s bank accounts and intends to seek restitution of more money.
The 65-year-old Thompson, wearing a plaid sports coat and gray slacks, acknowledged his guilt to U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Timothy with his attorney, Ryan Cordoso, standing beside him.
Thompson, who served for 20 years as the mayor of Milton, entered his plea without a negotiated sentence and Timothy wanted to make sure he understands that.
By pleading guilty, the magistrate explained, “your decision is final” and will stand “even if you don’t like the sentence.”
Under federal law he would be allowed to appeal the sentence, which is scheduled to be made public in a hearing scheduled for July 29.
The charges detail a scheme in which Thompson embezzled in the range of $86,000 to $99,000 annually for “at least” seven years.
Thompson wasn’t required to make a statement Thursday and spoke only briefly in subdued tones under questioning by Timothy, who asked if he had read the charges.
“Yes, I have,” Thompson replied.
The charges came by way of a document known as a federal “information,” which means they were prepared without the formality of a grand jury to consider evidence presented by a prosecutor.
Each count of the federal charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. The three tax evasion counts are also felonies, each punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
The charges state that Thompson, who was paid $53,000 a year as United Way of Santa Rosa’s executive director, “devised a complex scheme where he kept a portion of money intended for use to pay UWSRC’s regular bills and expenses by replacing it with other donation checks no one at UWSRC knew about.”
Further, the charges state: “By conducting a series of complicated financial transactions to cover his tracks, Thompson embezzled over $650,000 from UWSRC. Thompson maintained his scheme by making fraudulent misrepresentations to UWSRC’s board members and employees, its parent nonprofit United Way Worldwide, and bank personnel. He also took steps to prevent internal or external audits of UWSRC from occurring that would have uncovered his fraud.”
Thompson entered his guilty plea without an agreement, often called a “deal,” on what his sentence will be. Thus Timothy asked, “Has anyone promised you anything…?”
“No, your honor,” Thompson replied.
Timothy also asked, “Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?”
“Yes, your honor,” Thompson said.
A legacy in tatters
The guilty plea punctuates the apparent end of Thompson’s nonprofit career, which began in 1972 while he was a student at Milton High School and launched the city’s “Scratch Ankle” Founder’s Day celebration, which has grown into a popular annual event.
Thompson’s interest in nonprofits coincided with his political aspirations. He found the two complemented each other.
“As an elected official, I gained perspective on the community’s needs. At the United Way I could fulfill some of those needs,” Thompson said in an interview with the Navarre Press late last year.
After a stint in an Alabama community college studying political science—he did not receive a degree–Thompson’s dual career gained traction.
He was elected to Milton’s City Council in 1978, where he held office for 16 years before beginning a 20-year tenure as mayor in 1994. In 1980 he was hired to run the United Way of Santa Rosa after first being recruited as a volunteer by Bennett Russell, then superintendent of the county school district.
“I found that community service really interested me and became what I wanted to do with my life,” Thompson said in the earlier Navarre Press interview.
But as time passed, political opposition to Thompson developed and he lost his bid for re-election in 2014 to schoolteacher Wesley Meiss.
Those in court to hear Thompson’s guilty plea included Melissa Stuckey, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Santa Rosa County, which received about $10,000 a year from the now-defunct local United Way. She told a reporter, “This is heartbreaking. And even though United Way of Escambia is stepping in to help groups like ours, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We had depended on the Santa Rosa United Way.”
Now Thompson must depend on his attorney, Cardoso, to lobby for him with federal officials in favor of a lenient sentence.
But Timothy gave no indication either way, reminding Thompson that his restitution could include “any property traceable to the offenses.”
Timothy’s final words to Thompson as he and Cardoso packed up their papers at the end of the hearing to head for the probation office, which he must phone each Monday until sentencing: “Good luck to you sir.”