Diane Bennett Hollie, the former town clerk of tiny Pearl River in eastern St. Tammany Parish, was sentenced to five years of probation Thursday after pleading guilty to theft and other charges.
Hollie, 54, answered “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to the questions posed by 22nd Judicial District Judge Raymond Childress, who made sure Hollie understood her plea and that it hadn’t been coerced.
Hollie pleaded guilty to one felony count of theft and one felony count of unauthorized use of a movable. She also pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts, again for theft and unauthorized use of a movable. Two felony counts — one for unauthorized use of a movable and one for malfeasance in office — on which she was indicted were reduced to misdemeanors as part of the plea deal.
Childress gave Hollie two years of probation on the misdemeanors and five years on the felonies, with the sentences to run concurrently. He also ordered her to pay more than $8,000 in restitution plus a $500 fine, perform 20 days of community service and undergo random drug tests.
Hollie admitted to taking payments for vacation time to which she was not entitled, to purchasing personal items with town funds in order to avoid paying sales tax and to using a town generator.
Her attorney, Marion Farmer, described Hollie as “the nicest client” he’d ever had and said she got caught up in some bad decisions and was convicted on “technical violations.”
Childress warned her, however, that her sentence didn’t mean that she is totally clear of potential jail time.
“It’s up to you whether you spend a significant amount of time in prison,” he said. If Hollie doesn’t meet the terms of her probation, Childress said, he would send her to prison, noting that she could face as much as 16 years behind bars.
“I hope you have learned from the error of your ways,” he told her before she was fingerprinted and eventually released.
Hollie’s plea played out as a prelude to the bigger legal drama stemming from issues in Pearl River that were first reported by WWL-TV’s Ashley Rodrigue and then detailed in an exhaustive report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Former Mayor James Lavigne is slated to go to trial later this month on charges similar to the ones Hollie faced. He has been defiant in saying he did nothing wrong, blaming members of the Town Council and others.
Hollie’s plea agreement does not require her to testify against Lavigne, District Attorney Warren Montgomery said in a statement.
Prosecutor Darrell Sims said he plans to meet with Lavigne’s attorney next week to discuss the case but that he couldn’t say whether a plea deal is in the offing.
Sims said the resolution of Hollie’s case was welcome news. “I’m glad we finally got it resolved for the citizens of St. Tammany and Pearl River,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.