JONESTOWN — Mayor Kenny Lester pleaded guilty on four counts of embezzlement for converting public funds to his own use in Circuit Judge Charlie Webster’s courtroom Friday and resigned as Mayor of Jonestown effective 5 p.m. Monday.
Alderman Gregory Neely Sr. was appointed acting mayor for a period of six months during a special city council meeting Monday night. A special election is expected to follow at the end of that time. The winner of the special election would finish the current term that expires in July 2021.
In his plea, Lester, 46, who was in his first term as mayor, admitted he embezzled a firearm from the Jonestown Police Department and converted it to his own use. Webster sentenced Lester to two years in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody suspended, two years’ probation, $777 in restitution to the city of Jonestown, a $500 fine and other court costs. He was also required to resign by 5 p.m. Monday.
"Public officials are entrusted to be good stewards of taxpayer money," said attorney general Lynn Fitch in a press release. "My office will always protect the citizens of Mississippi from those that take advantage of their positions of public trust."
The allegations were pursued by Investigator Clint Hatch of the Attorney General's Public Integrity unit and prosecuted by Special Assistant Attorney General Brad Oberhousen.
A meeting was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday for the board to accept Lester’s resignation, but he did not arrive until Alderman Unta Wiley picked him up at around noon. Council members waited from the scheduled starting time until Lester’s arrival.
Lester handwrote his resignation, which city attorney Derek Hopson read and the council unanimously accepted.
“I, Kenneth Lester, tender my resignation to be effective at 5 p.m. today after the conclusion of all agreed stipulations,” said Hopson for Lester. “I resign due to personal reasons. I hereby thank the town of Jonestown and all the citizens.”
Lester also announced his resignation in the City of Jonestown News group.
It read, “It's been a great rollercoaster of a ride being the mayor of Jonestown, therefore today, due to personal reasons, at 5 p.m., I tender my resignation as mayor. I want to thank everyone who voted for me and especially to the ones who stood by me during this fight. This wasn't an easy decision but it was the best decision for me and my family. I am not one to hold grudges nor throw insults toward anyone. It was a great ride and don’t feel sorry for me because this is not the end, just a pit stop on this journey of making Jonestown great again. Thanks, thanks, thanks and thanks again. ‘APDTA’”
Per Hopson’s recommendation, Lester appointed Wiley pro-tempore for the remainder of the meeting early Monday afternoon.
The council and Lester went into executive session to get an informal inventory and assessment of buildings and assets, for Lester and the aldermen to work together for a transition and to approve Lester’s final checks and a mutual release of any possible civil claims. That executive session ended at approximately 2 p.m. Monday.
“This group, they worked together,” Hopson said. “There may be a few misunderstandings and contentions publicly, but behind closed doors, these gentlemen just walked out there and talked to the mayor (Lester).”
The council reconvened at 5 p.m. Monday at which time Neely Sr. was appointed acting mayor.
Acting town clerk Melissa Woodley provided a report from the inventory check earlier in the afternoon.
Woodley said Lester turned in one key for a door upstairs in city hall and one police car key. She said he turned in no guns.
After a walk-through of the maintenance shop, Woodley reported three old weed eaters were missing along with two new weed eaters, a chainsaw, pole saw and sump pump. She said two minute books and a bank statement book from 2019 was missing from city hall.
“Those are items I would recommend to the board that they acknowledge and they would so order that whoever becomes acting mayor that they understand that they’re taking a seat with that inventory,” Hopson said. “We’re not saying where it is, what happened to it. That’s not our concern. The only concern is that whoever is going to take the acting seat that they don’t have to answer for that.”
Hopson said while a special election is slated, if COVID-19 or another reason arises, Neely Sr. would finish the term. He said Woodley, who by default is the election commissioner, should call the Secretary of State’s office to make sure the process is done right.
Going forward, Neely Sr. said as mayor he will consider hiring two police officers. Chief Rico Smith is the town’s lone police officer. The department had three officers at one time.
“That’ll be something we’ll look into,” Neely Sr. said. “Now, we need to get back on line. We’re going to check our receipts, see what our income is the next few months.”