Once-hailed Texas civic leader now convicted thief - KSWO, Lawton, OK- Wichita Falls, TX: News, Weather, Sports. ABC, 24/7, Telemundo -

Once-hailed Texas civic leader now convicted thief

Waco_For two decades, one of Waco's biggest champions was the elegant Margaret Mills, who worked tirelessly to restore its crumbling, boarded-up downtown into the thriving center she remembered from her childhood.

The well-coifed, perfectly manicured woman in the expensive suits was often a force to be reckoned with as she held fundraisers and solicited money from reluctant donors who had given up on downtown.

But doubters turned into excited supporters as office buildings, restaurants and stores brought downtown back to life in the late 1980s and '90s.

So the city was stunned when authorities discovered that Mills - the executive director of Downtown Waco Inc. - had been embezzling from the economic development agency. She pleaded guilty to a felony charge last month.

"It was pretty much disbelief when the news came out," said Douglas Brown, a property investor and former Downtown Waco board member. "People thought, `Somebody made a mistake. Surely she can explain this.'"

With her impeccable outfits and stylish blond hair, Mills was hard to miss when she walked in a room. She was smart and socially adept, going from board meetings to political functions to lavish fundraisers with ease, knowing when to be hard-nosed and when to tell a funny story, friends said.

Her husband is a prominent attorney. Mills, 67, was earning nearly $64,000 a year in 2006, when she retired from Downtown Waco just as board members - who had little oversight of the agency - began noticing financial irregularities. She was arrested about nine months later.

Her attorney, Rick Bostwick, said the couple's net worth was less than the $308,000 restitution she was ordered to pay in addition to her prison term. The judge required her to bring $100,000 to her sentencing last week; four friends paid it on her behalf.

Waco police initially suspected Mills may have stolen about $500,000 over several years, spending the money at high-end clothing stores such as Fendi, at restaurants and hotels, and on landscaping at her house and other items, according to documents.

The Texas Attorney General's Office, which prosecuted the case because of the district attorney's ties to the family, alleged she stole about $237,000 and charged her with first-degree felony theft.

But after reaching a deal with prosecutors, Mills avoided a possible life prison term and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of third-degree felony theft between $20,000 and $100,000. She was sentenced to nine years in prison.

She never offered an explanation in court, but Mills said in 2006 she regretted taking "liberties" with the accounts, according to a letter to board members obtained by the Waco Tribune-Herald, which first reported Downtown Waco's financial problems. Her husband also reimbursed the agency $70,000 a few months later.

Now Mills wears a black-and-white striped jumpsuit as she sits in a county jail cell, waiting to be transferred to a state prison unit.

"She totally screwed up and is paying the price for it," said Toni Herbert, a former city councilwoman who took over at Downtown Waco after Mills' departure and before it closed in late 2006. "But people need to remember what downtown Waco looked like more than 20 years ago. Nothing would have happened if she had not had the tenacity, creativity and vision."

Waco's downtown had been declining because of suburban development and the aftermath of a 1953 tornado that killed 114 people. About 400 buildings were torn down, leaving gaping pockets of vacant land throughout the business district.

Downtown Waco got funding mainly from merchants' dues and city contracts for such things as landscaping, street sweeping and security. Over time, the city and Chamber of Commerce became more involved, causing friction when Mills thought they wanted to take credit for her work or control her agency, some said.

Although some still want answers from Mills or to revel in her fall from grace, others wish the town could remember the good she did for Waco.

"It's sad that this will be her legacy rather than what she accomplished," Brown said.

Angela K. Brown, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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