Carolyn Paige Rice, a former Charlottesville chief of staff and clerk of council, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor embezzlement charge Wednesday for failing to return an iPhone X and Apple Watch that were paid for by the city during her tenure.
As part of the plea agreement, Rice was charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony and was sentenced to six months in prison; the sentence is suspended two years with the opportunity for her to avoid doing time contingent on good behavior. Rice, 37, is also required to complete 200 hours of community service.
“We [originally] charged it as a felony because [reducing] a charge shouldn’t have happened behind closed doors,” Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania says. “We wanted it to be transparent and wanted the public to see what the initial charge was. A grand jury heard the evidence and then it got reduced in a public open courtroom so transparency was very important to me as part of this process.”
Rice resigned from her post in September, citing a pay cut she received just two months after the city gave her a raise. Her last day as a city employee was October 5, when Platania says she also called AT&T and asked for her iPhone to be unlocked so that she could switch it to another provider.
Four days later, Brian Wheeler, Charlottesville director of communications, contacted Rice to ask for the watch, phone, and an iPad to be returned. Rice told Wheeler that the screen on the iPhone was broken and had no trade-in value, and that she’d paid for the Apple Watch herself.
In an email conversation between Wheeler and Rice later that week, Rice claimed that she’d mailed the iPhone in to AT&T’s recycling program but agreed to return the iPad. Wheeler tried to confirm with AT&T that the phone had been received.The cell phone provider told him in late December that it had been transferred to Verizon and was never returned.
The Charlottesville Police Department opened up a criminal investigation in January and found that the phone had been added to the Verizon account of Carol Barfield, Rice’s mother. Wheeler also located a December 2017 AT&T bill that confirmed the Apple Watch was purchased by the city itself.
CPD obtained a search warrant March 14 for Rice’s home and confronted her that day. When Detective David Stutzman approached Rice, she was wearing the Apple Watch and using the iPhone X. A month later, she admitted to police that she had not paid for the watch nor did the phone screen break.
A grand jury indicted Rice on felony embezzlement charges June 7 but her attorney was able to negotiate the charge being lowered to a misdemeanor as part of the plea agreement. Rice, who’s now the chief of staff of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, declined to comment through her lawyer Andrew Sneathern.
Rice’s made $72,842 as clerk of council, and her salary was raised to $98,328 as clerk and chief of staff before the pay cut. Platania says Rice’s motive for keeping the devices is “unclear” but that the city felt it needed to pursue a criminal investigation because “there were multiple attempts made to get the devices back and the requests to have it returned were not met with truthful responses, and so we sort of didn’t feel like we had any other options.”