Former Phenix City Councilman Arthur Sumbry Sr., who once vowed he would never plead guilty to charges against him in exchange for a lighter penalty, pleaded guilty Tuesday to forgery in exchange for a sentence of probation, restitution and a promise never to seek public office again.
The 72-year-old also agreed never again to serve as a notary public as he told Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker III he was guilty of helping Ella Mae Sanders forge a deed. The deed would have transferred the home of 94-year-old Ambros Adams Sr. to Sanders’ son Elliott S. McCray, who had served as Adams’ caretaker.
Sumbry notarized the document, and when Adams’ daughter disputed the authenticity of her ailing father’s signature, Sumbry in a civil trial testified he had witnessed Adams sign the deed.
The daughter hired a handwriting expert who testified the signature had 10 inconsistencies when compared to other examples of Adams’ writing. The deed was declared void.
For testifying the signature was authentic, Sumbry and Sanders were indicted for perjury and forgery. In 2011, Sanders, then 55, was convicted of perjury, sentenced to four years’ probation and ordered to pay fines and restitution.
Sumbry’s trial repeatedly was delayed. It was about to go to court in May 2012 when a resident on the jury list came to the Russell County Judicial Center to ask whether she would serve as a juror. Authorities noted she had not yet been summoned to jury duty, so how did she know she was on the list?
Sumbry told her, she said. He had asked her to help him out, and to tell no one they had talked, Chief Deputy District Attorney Buster Landreau recalled.
Based on her account, Sumbry was arrested May 11, 2012, on charges of jury tampering, intimidating a juror and soliciting perjury.
Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain last year, but he declined. “I’m not going to take no guilty pleas,” he said then. “I’m not guilty.”
In the plea deal he accepted today, Sumbry’s other charges were dropped in exchange for his pleading guilty to forgery. He pledged not only to never seek public office again, but to accept no office offered to him. Because Adams’ daughter incurred significant expenses in hiring an attorney and handwriting expert to dispute the deed Sumbry notarized, Sumbry was calculated to have owed her $4,032 in restitution. But Sumbry’s mortuary had provided $3,185 worth of funeral services for Adams, so Walker reduced the amount of restitution to $846.
Walker sentenced Sumbry to serve a year and a day in jail, but that was suspended, and instead Sumbry will be on probation for two years. Sumbry also is to pay court costs associated with the case.
Walker, the Lee County judge, was appointed to hear Sumbry’s case after Russell County judges recused themselves.
Though Sumbry pleaded guilty to aiding Sanders in the forgery, under Alabama law he is as guilty as if he’d forged the deed himself, Landreau said.
Sumbry did not comment after the sentencing. His attorney, Michael Speakman, said the former councilman is glad the case is over, and looks forward to spending time with his grandchildren.
District Attorney Ken Davis said it was time to close the case, to save taxpayers any further expense in prosecuting the aging ex-politician. Sumbry’s initial indictment was in January 2011.
“Given the fact that the most culpable person in this case, Ms. Sanders, was given probation, and given his age and his physical and mental condition, he was not going to jail, in my opinion,” Davis said. “We don’t believe it was worth spending another $15,000 or $20,000 of the county’s money to prosecute the case.”
Landreau later noted that under new sentencing guidelines, Sumbry would not have gone to prison anyway.
Sumbry has long been a fixture in Phenix City politics, having served eight nonconsecutive terms on council since 1980. He also had a record of scandals.
He was convicted in 1980 of unlawful voter registration and sentenced to two years probation on charges he illegally helped people register to vote the first time he ran for office.
Later he was convicted of first-degree perjury, and also pleaded guilty to another felony unlawful registration charge. He was pardoned for those convictions in 1982, though later he had to leave office as his eligibility to hold a public office was challenged.
While he was sidelined, his daughter Sabrina Sumbry tried to assume her father’s seat in 1989, but lost in a runoff. Both Arthur Sumbry Sr. and his son Arttie Pontez Sumbry were seeking the city council seat last year when the father abruptly dropped out on Aug. 22 and endorsed his son, less than a week before the election. The son lost to Arthur L. Day Jr. as Phenix City voters unseated incumbents to elect a new council.