By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
“Former Town of Kiawah Officials Indicted for Wire Fraud,” read the announcement from the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) on Tuesday November 14, 2017. Three days later, Tumiko Rucker, age 42, and Harrison Kenneth Gunnells, age 59, pleaded innocent to the charges associated with embezzling $200,000, which carries sobering penalties. Wire fraud is a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1349 and 1344. Convictions carry a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000, though restitution is often taken into account.
Gunnells changed his plea to “guilty” late last month, and Rucker did the same earlier in June.
Armed with a forensic audit (covering 2011-2015) conducted by the Town of Kiawah Island (TOKI), Assistant United States Attorney Rhett DeHart has pursued the pair for nearly three years now. The audit suggested the accused defrauded TOKI of $200,000, falsified documents, used TOKI credit cards for personal items like travel, and funneled an additional $100,000 unevenly between TOKI staff members. DeHart doesn’t take the glacial pace of justice personally, however, and is still circumspect about possible sentences.
“I’m not comfortable recommending a sentence until after I’ve read the presentence report,” DeHart told the Island Connection. Presentence reports include such information as previous arrests, mental health, and employment history as aids to judges in determining sentences. “I may not make a recommendation. Judge Duffy is a really good judge,” he added. Asked when the 9th Circuit Court would make its decision, DeHart said, “Sentencing is typically scheduled 60-90 days [after a guilty plea is entered],” though he hinted a confluence of unrelated factors could mean the date is scheduled sooner than later.
When asked a number of questions including what sort of sentence residents could expect, TOKI’s attorney, Dwayne Green said in an email, “It’s not up to the Town to ‘seek jail time.’ That decision is up to the federal prosecutor. All the Town can do at the sentencing phase is ask for the stiffest possible penalty given the circumstances. The fact that neither defendant has a prior criminal record is one of the factors the judge will consider, as is the amounts of money involved given the federal sentencing guidelines.” However, he also said jail time seemed unlikely during his comment period at the June 5 TOKI town council meeting.
DeHart, meanwhile, closed out another recent case of wire fraud in Columbia, SC. Cited as a basis of comparison, the defendant was jailed for 36 months with an additional 3 years of supervised release, and paid restitution in excess of $600,000. (Justice.gov/usao-sc/pr/charleston-mansentenced-investment-fraud.)
Tim Kulp (Gunnells’ attorney) and Lauren Williams (Rucker’s attorney) were very chatty when they were retained in 2015. Williams said she looked forward to defending Rucker, while Kulp provided the Island Connection with anecdotes about himself, his experience, and childhood, as both counselors played it pretty close to the vest.
Neither of the two lawyers replied to emailed requests for comments last week after amending their client’s pleas.
DeHart confirmed the penalties associated with the alleged crimes would be applied separately to each of the two individuals.