Roland Graham

Roland Graham pleads guilty in Jones County Circuit Court.

A former Jones County employee with a long history of criminal convictions now has a short future behind bars, but he could face a life sentence if he messes up again, the judge warned.

Roland Graham, 61, was ordered to serve 30 months in the full-time custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections after pleading guilty in Jones County Circuit Court to embezzlement and conspiracy involving county equipment and workers and felony DUI. He was sentenced as a habitual offender, meaning he is supposed to serve all of his time, day for day.

Graham was employed by Beat 5 Supervisor Travares Comegys as road foreman when he and contractor Larry Barnes, 58, of Purvis were arrested in February 2020 for using county equipment and county employees to demolish a house and clean up the property at 1415 North 5th Ave. during regular working hours, Assistant District Attorney Katie Sumrall told the court.

They used two county dump trucks, an excavator and a knuckleboom at the site, along with other county workers who were on the clock, Sumrall said. Graham, who worked for the county for seven years, has prior convictions for burglary (1979 and 1983), simple robbery pleaded down from armed robbery (1989) and felony DUI (2000) after getting three convictions for drinking and driving during a five-year span.

He was facing up to 25 years in prison if convicted of all the most recent charges, but Sumrall told Judge Dal Williamson that Graham “provided information that led to the conviction” of co-conspirator Barnes and has continued to be cooperative. Graham has already paid back $1,000 of the money he owes the county, Sumrall noted.

“He was an open book” for prosecutors, Graham’s attorney John Piazza told the judge.

He also got booked on another charge the following year. In August 2021, he tried to avoid a Jones County Sheriff’s Department sobriety checkpoint on Don Curt Road. When deputies went to his vehicle to check him out, there was a bottle of liquor on the passenger’s seat and a breath test showed he had a blood-alcohol level of .13, Sumrall said. The legal limit is .08.

The state Auditor’s Office, which brought the charges against Barnes and Graham, are in agreement with the sentence, Sumrall told the judge.

“I’m only going along with this (sentence recommendation) because you cooperated and you’ve taken responsibility and helped bring to justice the other perpetrator,” Williamson said.

In addition to the prison time, Graham will have to spend five years on post-release supervision under MDOC, participate in the court’s community-service program and pay a total of $8,946.17. That amount includes $5,019.17 in restitution to the county and a $3,000 fine.

Graham was sentenced to 30 months on the DUI and two years on the embezzlement/conspiracy, but those sentences will run concurrently. He has already spent almost a year (350 days) in the Jones County Adult Detention Center, and that’s time he will get credit for.

“Don’t get another felony,” Williamson told Graham, warning him that he would likely be indicted under a law that would require him to receive a life sentence because of the serious convictions from his past.

In January, Barnes received a three-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay $6,178.92 in restitution to the Jones County Board of Supervisors. As part of the plea agreement negotiated between his attorney Tom Fortner of Hattiesburg and Sumrall, Barnes paid $4,000 on that day and has since settled that debt. He also got post-release supervision under MDOC and community service. Barnes was facing up to five years in prison, if he had gone to trial and been found guilty.

He was convicted of felony drug possession 25 years earlier.

“To use equipment owned by the taxpayers for your personal benefit is the same as stealing, and we take these crimes just as seriously as if someone stole from a bank,” Auditor Shad White said at the time. “I’m thankful for the hard work of our investigators for putting a stop to this. Every government employee thinking about committing this kind of fraud should be on notice that we’re watching.”

In November, in a separate case, Comegys was charged with embezzlement after being accused of using his county-owned pickup and cellphone in the operation of his personal business. He was ordered to pay back $5,719.24, an amount that included interest and investigative costs. Comegys is also being represented by Fortner in a case that the DA’s office is having to rework because of faulty wording in the original indictment.

Suspected fraud can be reported to the Auditor’s office online by clicking the red button at www.osa. ms.gov or via telephone during normal business hours at 1-800-321-1275.

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