Ex-Virgin mayor avoids jail after guilty plea
Editor’s note: this story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune Oct. 2, 2003.
Jay Lee, former mayor of Virgin, will serve no jail time for his guilty pleas to two misdemeanors involving misuse of city funds. In a hearing Wednesday heavily attended by residents of the southwestern Utah town, 5th District Judge James Shumate sentenced Lee to concurrent terms of one year in jail,
then stayed the sentence and ordered him to serve 36 months probation.
Lee originally had been charged with second-degree felony misuse of public funds and a misdemeanor count of witness tampering. In an Aug. 28 plea agreement, Deputy Washington County Attorney Paul Christensen reduced the charges to class A misdemeanor attempted misuse of public funds and attempted witness tampering. Lee pleaded no contest to the first count and guilty to the second. He had resigned as mayor the day before.
The original charges were filed in May after an audit by a St. George accounting firm found that between Aug. 22, 2001, and June 21, 2002, Lee allowed former town clerk Stacy Noelle Higbee to collect an advance on her wages totaling $18,600.
All the money had been paid back with the exception of $2,500, which Lee reimbursed to the town with his own money. Christensen said Lee’s action amounted to acknowledgement that he knew it was illegal to advance the money to Higbee.
Christensen said the tampering charge stemmed from Lee asking the current town clerk, Mona Wilcox, not to testify against him in the belief that the state’s case would crumble without her cooperation.
Higbee, who also is charged with misuse of public funds, resigned as town clerk. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 27 before Shumate, who ordered Lee to appear to testify at the proceeding.
The judge said Wednesday that he received several letters written on Lee’s behalf, adding that he was surprised at the number of Virgin residents who came to the sentencing and what he perceived as "an inordinate amount of interest" by news media.
Christensen said he has spoken to members of the public and received letters about Lee, some calling him kind and caring and others portraying him as a "tyrannical, gun-toting despot."
He said the truth was somewhere in the middle, and that Lee’s failure to keep proper records of town checks had more to do with ignorance of the rules than monetary gain.
After Lee’s resignation, former town Councilman Kenneth Cornelius, Jr., was appointed as mayor, but he resigned this week after being charged with misdemeanor counts involving a domestic dispute.
Darwin Hall since has been named mayor pro tem.