The former director of Clayton County’s senior services pleaded guilty to bribery and theft charges Friday and will serve at least two years in prison.
Mary Byrd was arrested last July after an internal audit showed tens of thousands of dollars missing from the department she ran. The money came from accounts intended to feed needy seniors and to provide financial aid to grandparents who unexpectedly have to raise their grandchildren.
Byrd, according to an investigation by Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson’s office, forged the signature of an employee authorized to write checks. Money from the department was diverted to an account Byrd controlled and was used on personal expenses. The scheme dates back to 2009, Lawson said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a time when the recession was at its height and social services were in high demand.
“We had a waiting list at the time for the Meals on Wheels program,” said Lawson.
That’s one of the reasons Lawson’s office pushed for prison time.
Byrd was immediately taken into custody after her plea Friday and will begin serving her 2-year sentence. Byrd paid back $16,000, which represented about two years of the missing money.
The investigation found more than 32 counts of theft dating back to 2009. And when auditors began looking into department spending, Byrd attempted to bribe a department employee to shield her from the missing money. Collectively, the fraud and bribery charges could have resulted in a 50-year prison sentence.
Lawson was adamant that Byrd serve prison time for violating the public’s trust.
“She’s a department head and she’s stealing money she is entrusted with,” Lawson said. “A prison sentence sends a clear, strong message to public employees that you aren’t going to steal or get an interest-free loan, you’re going to jail. If you allow people to pay restitution without jail, all you are telling people is you can get an interest-free loan (from the public).”
Byrd had been in charge of the county’s senior services division for five years. The department is the fifth-largest in the county, with six facilities and 125 employees.
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