Former Milton Mayor Guy Thompson was sentenced to 51 months in prison on Friday, bringing to end a 15-month saga that saw the swift and stunning downfall of a man who used to be revered as one of the region's most distinguished civic and charitable leaders.
RELATED: Ex-United Way director pleads guilty to 20 counts of wire fraud, 3 counts of tax evasion
Thompson, 65, pleaded guilty in May in federal court in Pensacola to 20 counts of wire fraud and three counts of tax evasion. An FBI investigation uncovered years of theft and deceit while Thompson served at the helm of the charity formerly known as United Way of Santa Rosa County. Between 2011 and 2018, Thompson embezzled more than $650,000 from the organization using a complex check fraud scheme.
RELATED: Council votes to remove Guy Thompson’s name from community center
Thompson's scheme first began unraveling in October 2018, when he was ousted from his position as director of United Way of Santa Rosa County. The FBI began its investigation of Thompson that same month, and the organization launched its own internal audit as well.
Federal prosecutors ultimately found proof that between Oct. 14, 2011, and Oct. 31, 2018, Thompson executed a complicated scheme by fraudulently embezzling money belonging to United Way of Santa Rosa County for his own personal use.
Prosecutors outlined at least 20 separate occasions where Thompson committed wire fraud by depositing checks into his personal accounts that were made out to United Way and meant for charity.
Thompson utilized a complicated check fraud scheme to pocket the money that kept the board members and bookkeepers in the dark about the donations that were coming in.
Over six years, Thompson conducted "hundreds of fraudulent deposits" this way, according to prosecutors. He embezzled a total of $652,000.61 from United Way of Santa Rosa County.
It's not clear how his scheme was ultimately discovered, but court documents say he failed to tell anyone at the organization what he was doing "prior to on or about Sept. 28, 2018."
Federal authorities have since seized over $220,000 from bank accounts owned by Thompson and his wife. Thompson has also put at least one of his properties in Milton up for sale to pay back his restitution to the U.S. government, which is seeking to get back the full $650,000.
Guy Thompson's fall from grace
Thompson's ouster and guilty plea sent shockwaves through the Milton community.
Thompson was revered in the city where he lived and served for nearly his entire career. He was a Milton City Councilman from 1978 to 1994, and was mayor from 1994 to 2014. The Milton Community Center was renamed after him in 2015, to honor him for his service to the community.
Thompson was active in several local charities and served on many boards. He was heralded for the money he raised for United Way of Santa Rosa County while he served as its executive director, but was secretly stashing away the donations in his own personal bank accounts.
Thompson was ousted from Untied Way of Santa Rosa County in October 2018, when allegations of financial impropriety first began to surface.
In March 2019, United Way Worldwide formally cut all ties with the Santa Rosa County organization, and ordered the local group to stop using the United Way name and logo. The organization has since stopped accepting and distributing donations, no longer has a staff, sold its buildings and has all but dissolved completely.
The former United Way of Escambia County changed its name to United Way of West Florida and has since assumed charitable operations in Santa Rosa County.
After Thompson's crimes came to light, the Milton City Council voted unanimously to remove his name and any mentions of him from the community center. The council then ordered an audit to be conducted late last year due to the council's concerns that Thompson served as mayor for a period of time that he also served as United Way of Santa Rosa County director.
The audit found no evidence that money had been inappropriately handled during the time period that Thompson served as both mayor and United Way director concurrently.
But Thompson's actions still reverberate throughout the community to this day. With the dissolution of the local chapter of United Way, more than a dozen charities were left without any kind of monetary assistance for several months until United Way of West Florida has since stepped in to help.
Local leaders and community members still are shocked that Thompson's crimes could have gone unnoticed for so long.
Several charities that received United Way of Santa Rosa County funding were given the opportunity to write victim impact statements for the court ahead of Thompson's sentencing.
"I wrote in my letter that we are continuing to be victimized, and we really can't move past it, because there is no sentencing, there is no justice for what has happened to our entire community," Michelle Abrams, the founder and president of Weekend Food Program of Navarre, in an interview with the News Journal in November 2019, after Thompson's sentencing had been delayed for the third time. "Especially as we're coming into the holiday season and so many organizations are tasked to meet the needs of our community. To know that he basically made a bigger place at his own table for his own family, and gave generous handouts to his own family when some of us who were depending on that funding were struggling, is just unimaginable."
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.