Former bank president gets minimum sentence

The former president of First National Bank of Shelby County was sentenced to six months in prison Dec. 21 on two counts of bank fraud and one count of obstructing a bank examination.

A federal jury convicted Columbiana resident Helen Harrison Phillips, 67, on July 31 after a four-day trial. U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor handled Phillips’ sentencing.

In October 2000, Phillips used her housekeeper to get a loan for $45,000, which was used for personal purposes, including paying $32,518 to the Internal Revenue Service. Phillips arranged to pay off the loan to hide the scheme from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the nation’s banking industry.

It is illegal for a bank officer to take out loans in the name of one party that is intended for use by another.

Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis said he testified at Phillips’ sentencing and was very pleased with how Proctor handled the proceedings. The prosecution asked for a maximum sentence, which would have included millions of dollars in fines and a jail sentence of 30 to 36 months, Ellis said.

“The judge rejected it and rejected it out of hand,” Ellis said. “The judge said, ‘I find no record of this woman ever having committed any kind of crime, not even a traffic violation. I find that she had every intention of paying this money back. I see no danger of her ever having indicated she would commit another crime.’”

Ellis said Proctor sentenced Phillips to the least amount of jail time, six months, and gave her until March 2010 to report for her imprisonment.

“He said, ‘Allowing you to delay reporting until March gets you through the holiday season, and the people where you go will know you are a person to be trusted,’” Ellis said.

Those on the prosecution’s side characterized Phillips as a corrupt bank official and an example for others who would violate regulations.

“Criminals working in the financial sector who believe that they can break the law and avoid prosecution need to know that the federal government will prosecute these cases in order to protect the rights of the bank’s shareholders and customers,” said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance in a press release.

FBI special agent Patrick J. Maley, who was in charge of the agency’s investigation into the matter, said the FBI works to bring those like Phillips to justice.

“Corrupt bank officials undermine the integrity of our banking system and must be held accountable,” Maley said.

Ellis said no one in Columbiana thinks of Phillips in that way.

“Helen Phillips is a trusted person in this town. There’s not a person in this town that thinks Helen Phillips is bad or evil,” he said. “I was very pleased that the judge stepped into what I thought was a prosecution run amok.”