Former Charlottesville Clerk of Council/Chief of Staff Paige Rice was handed a six-month suspended sentence on Wednesday after she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement.
Rice originally was charged in June with felony embezzlement, which carried a possible maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Judge Humes J. Franklin accepted the plea deal in Charlottesville Circuit Court, giving Rice a six-month suspended sentence, one year of probation, two years of good behavior and 200 hours of community service.
Rice, who joined the city as clerk of council in 2010, tendered her resignation on Sept. 12 over salary disputes. She wanted a higher pay than was provided when her job title was expanded to include chief of staff.
The charges came after officials discovered that she kept an Apple Watch and iPhone X that were purchased with city funds during her employment.
Her salary rose from $72,842 to $98,328 with the expanded role, which came after then-City Manager Maurice Jones’ contract was not renewed amid ongoing discussions on council about the city’s form of governance.
Rice worked until Sept. 21 and then used her remaining time off before leaving on Oct. 5. City spokesman Brian Wheeler was appointed interim clerk on Oct. 1.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania and Rice’s attorney, Andrew Sneathern, laid out the facts of the case prior to the sentencing.
The watch and iPhone were purchased using city funds on Dec. 13, 2017, at a total value of $766.98. They were connected to an AT&T account covering devices used by City Council. Bills for the watch and phone were paid through a city-issued credit card through mid-October.
On her last official day, AT&T fulfilled a request to transfer the phone to another provider. Platania said it was added to a Verizon account for Rice’s mother.
On Oct. 9, Wheeler, who was responsible for ensuring the devices were returned, called Rice about the equipment and a city-owned iPad. On that call, Rice said that the phone’s screen was broken and she had paid for the Apple Watch herself, therefore it was her property.
Wheeler sent Rice an email the following day asking for the return of the damaged phone and iPad. He did not ask about the watch because, Platania said, he believed Rice’s claim that she paid for it.
Once the investigation started, Wheeler found record of the iPhone and watch purchases.
On Oct. 13, Rice said she was sending the iPad back with her husband, Joe Rice, the city’s deputy director of communications. She claimed that she had already sent the phone to AT&T because the screen was cracked.
Wheeler tried unsuccessfully to confirm that AT&T received the phone over the next two months, receiving a reply in late December that the phone had been converted to Verizon.
In January, then-Interim City Manager Mike Murphy approached Platania and said Rice may have kept the property. Platania emphasized that at the time it wasn’t certain a crime had occurred.
The Charlottesville Police Department investigated the case over January and February and determined the phone had been transferred to a new account and was tracked to the area of Rice’s home.
On March 14, city police decided to execute a search warrant on Rice’s home rather than ask a second time for the devices to be returned.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” Platania said. “If we were going to charge this, we felt we needed the devices as evidence.”
When officers arrived at the house, Platania said, Rice greeted officers while wearing the watch and talking on the phone.
Rice told officers that she had returned the phone, then later said that it may have been somewhere in the house. Police continued to question her and she admitted that the phone she was using was the one in question.
Rice said the screen had broken and she paid for it to be repaired. She also maintained that she bought the watch, but was unable to provide receipts for the purchase or repairs.
Rice came to the police department on April 17 with her attorney and admitted to taking the phone and watch. She also admitted that she never paid for the watch and the phone’s screen was never broken. By that time, the devices had been returned to the city.
Rice was indicted on June 7 and turned herself in to the court the following week.
After the hearing, Platania said the charges were pursued because, even though the property value was minimal and Rice had returned the devices, she needed to be held accountable.
“Just because you come in and admit to a crime, doesn’t mean it didn’t occur,” he said. “We’re not going to treat her any better or worse than anyone else. … If everything had been returned, this would not have come to me.”
Platania said Rice’s motivation for taking the devices wasn’t clear.
Rice, wearing a silver analog watch, spoke little during Wednesday’s hearing, only answering standard questions the court asks during all plea deals. The Rices and Sneathern declined to comment after the hearing.
Rice faced such a steep penalty because embezzlement falls under the same statute as larceny. The threshold for larceny to become a felony was raised from $200 to $500 on July 1, 2018.
The felony threshold is dependent on the value of the devices on Oct. 5, the date of the crime.
Rice’s lawyer disputed the value of the phone during the hearing.
“It wasn’t asked for back for a year later, so it was a used phone,” Sneathern said of the phone’s value during the hearing.
Based on the $766 cost to purchase the devices in September, Rice would have only faced a misdemeanor charge in 37 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
After the hearing, Platania said the case is concluded and no one else will face charges.
Rice’s sentence is similar to that of the last city official to be indicted on embezzlement charges.
In 2013, former Charlottesville Registrar Sheri Iachetta and former Electoral Board member Stephanie Commander faced charges for using city tax money to cover city-issued cellphones for Iachetta’s husband, Pat Owen, and Commander, neither of whom held positions with the city at the time.
Both accepted plea agreements and received 90-day suspended sentences but were required to perform 200 hours of community service.