Before she was sentenced Thursday in an embezzlement scheme that authorities say robbed Hancock County coffers of more than $300,000, an ex-Probate Court judge spoke of feeling “useless, lifeless ... depressed.”
The shamed judge, Marva L. Rice, 53, was ordered to spend 21 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to pocketing fine money and other funds collected at the Sparta courthouse.
Investigators said more than $313,000 went missing over a span of years beginning in 2008, but Rice, as part of a plea deal, was convicted of taking money only in 2012.
That year, investigators said $43,864 taken in by Rice’s office never reached the county’s bank account. When auditors discovered that cash wasn’t being deposited in a timely manner, the FBI was called in. The next year, while the feds were on the case, Rice used $20,000 in county money to cover her legal fees.
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Thursday in federal court in Macon, Rice was also ordered to pay all $63,864 of the money back.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell noted that Rice’s plea arrangement came about in part due to “the difficulties that the government faced in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the total amount embezzled by Ms. Rice ... (exceeded) $300,000.”
By federal sentencing guidelines, Rice faced anywhere from 15 to 21 months in prison.
“It is a sad day to see a judge go from wearing a black robe to wearing a federal prison uniform,” U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said in a statement.
Not only did the theft cost Rice, a former elections superintendent, her judgeship, Treadwell said she stole from one of Georgia’s poorest counties.
Nearly a third of the 9,000 or so residents there live in poverty. According to census figures, Hancock is the 55th-poorest county in the U.S., with a per-capita income of less than $11,000 a year.
“The amount of money that the defendant has taken ... is a significant amount of money to take from people,” Treadwell said to Rice. “Who knows how they came up with the money they came up with to pay the fines that they had to pay -- money that ended up in your pocket.”
A character witness for Rice, a woman who runs a day care center, told of Rice’s “giving spirit” and sympathy for the downtrodden.
When Rice addressed the court, she took “full responsibility” and spoke of how her crime has “been a tremendous hurt to me.”
She said it left her suicidal at one point.
“I have really beat up on myself,” she said.
“I have nothing. I feel useless, lifeless ... depressed, can’t get out of bed, don’t want to eat anything.”
Rice, who came to Georgia from Philadelphia when she was young, stood at a lectern while she talked.
Asked to describe some of her medical problems -- asthma and sinus ailments among them -- one by one she pulled more than half a dozen medicine bottles from a blue tote bag.
When court adjourned, a reporter asked if she had any remarks.
“I’m just numb,” Rice said.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.