A Helena-West Helena woman who made about $4 million in three years by falsely claiming to have fed hundreds of poor children at 34 sites in eastern Arkansas was sentenced Wednesday to 12½ years in federal prison -- one month shy of the maximum recommended.
Jacqueline Mills, 42, also was ordered to repay $3,014,276.87 -- the amount she received under false pretenses that hasn't yet been recouped -- to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services Division.
U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. imposed the sentence on 39 charges for which Mills was convicted by a federal jury in early April, after a two-week trial. The charges included one count of wire-fraud conspiracy, 25 counts of wire fraud, 10 counts of bribery and three counts of money laundering.
In a statement that lasted about 30 minutes before the judge handed down the sentence, Mills, sporting a newly cropped haircut and wearing a fitted pale pantsuit over a crisp white blouse, kicked off her heels -- with the judge's permission -- and stood barefooted before him, complaining about the unfairness of the charges and her trial.
She repeatedly denied ever falsifying documents after being indicted in late 2014 on allegations of submitting false and greatly exaggerated claims for reimbursement to the federal government, as a former friend and admitted co-conspirator, Tonique Hatton of North Little Rock, testified as part of a plea agreement.
Hatton, who is serving a nine-year sentence in the case, was one of two women who worked at the state Department of Human Services, which administered the federal program in Arkansas, and who admitted they acted as "gatekeepers," accepting bribes to approve obviously false claims.
Mills told Moody that she couldn't understand why certain rules that applied to other sponsors of feeding programs didn't also apply to her -- such as being allowed to correct mistakes before being charged with crimes.
"I'm trying to understand what the hell is the difference between me and these other people," she said, at one point suggesting, "There has to be a set of rules for whites and, I won't say for blacks, but for Jacqueline Mills."
Mills and many, if not all, of the other people charged in several related schemes are black.
The former day-care and preschool operator who said she has devoted her life to helping children also told Moody, "I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around this amount of money that you all say I have to pay back."
Some witnesses at Mills' trial recalled seeing perhaps 20 children at a time at locations where Mills said she served food to hundreds of underprivileged children at a time. But under federal law, even if only part of a claim is false, the entire claim is considered false -- and thus the entire amount paid is reimbursable.
The USDA, through the state, reimbursed state-approved sponsors for meals they claimed to provide by direct-depositing amounts, determined by a formula, into their bank accounts. Prosecutors said they also found checks Mills had written to Hatton and Gladys King Waits, another admitted gatekeeper, indicating that Mills bribed the state employees to verify her false claims.
"They didn't protect me," Mills said of the other women, "because I had several reviews that weren't by them."
She was represented Wednesday by John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, whom she hired after firing her trial attorney. She complained to Moody that her trial attorney "just dropped the ball" and refused to do things she asked him to do -- such as admitting into evidence more than 12 boxes of paperwork she believed were admissible and would prove she was innocent.
"It wasn't about the money for me," she said. "It wasn't about the greed. It was actually about helping children. I'm being held responsible for a lot of things I'm not responsible for."
As a mother of a young child, Mills also complained that her prosecution has kept her away from her daughter, her friends and her family for much of three years.
In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jana Harris reminded the judge that he had heard all the testimony and seen all the exhibits.
"What this case is about is inflating the number of children that were fed in order to get more money," Harris said.
Noting that Mills was a prolific sponsor who requested reimbursement for feeding children at 34 locations -- more than any other sponsor -- Harris added, "Ms. Mills had an extensive organization."
Harris reminded the judge of testimony that after Mills' indictment, she helped create "four tubs of fake documents" to try to win an acquittal.
"I realize she has a history of working with children," Harris said, arguing that because of Mills' work with children, she, more than many, "knows the need -- and that's what makes her conduct all the more offensive."
Facing a recommended penalty range of between 121 months (10 years and one month) to 151 months (12 years and seven months), Moody said the case warranted a sentence of 150 months, for several reasons, including the complex nature of the crime, the fact that it was carried out over a long period of time and the numerous separate transactions involved.
While Hall argued that he had once represented an attorney who stole $9 million and received a lesser sentence, Moody said, "Perhaps the lawyer got off easy. I don't know. But I'm sentencing Ms. Mills in the context of her crime."
He ordered her to report to prison by 2 p.m. Jan. 31.
In addition to the restitution, Mills is required to forfeit to the government several pieces of property -- including homes, businesses and vehicles -- that are considered proceeds of her crime. Hall said that as the property is forfeited, the amount of restitution may decrease accordingly. Prosecutors said they haven't decided yet whether to agree to apply the forfeited property to the restitution total.
Mills was tried jointly with Anthony Waits of England and North Little Rock, who in October was sentenced to 14½ years in prison for his sole conviction of wire-fraud conspiracy.
Waits, 39, received a lengthy sentence mostly because of his extensive criminal history. Prosecutors said he never signed up as a sponsor, and never had government checks direct-deposited into his bank account, but that he took cash kickbacks from other people he recruited to sign up as sponsors.
He and Mills are the only two of 16 people to be convicted in the case so far.
In a news release Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said, "Mills and Waits stole millions of dollars intended for disadvantaged and hungry children in one of the most egregious examples of fraud this office has prosecuted. The significant sentence each received properly reflects the heinous nature of their crime -- preying on the most vulnerable members of our society."
The case is still under investigation, Hiland said, adding, "When criminals steal from children, it's this office's stated intention to ensure that they spend significant time in prison."
Mills is the 13th person to be sentenced in the related schemes, which prosecutors say has so far uncovered more than $13 million in feeding program fraud in Arkansas.
Metro on 12/07/2017