Doc Matthews, former St. Paul's Fire District chief

Former St. Paul's Fire District Chief Doc Matthews (center) leaves Charleston federal court with defense attorney Bill Thrower and his wife after he was sentenced to nearly three years in a scheme to defraud the department. He was allowed to report to prison later. Andrew Knapp/Staff

Aiming to deter abuse of public money by other officials, a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a former fire chief and a government contractor to prison for a scheme that siphoned tens of thousands of dollars from the St. Paul's Fire District to their own bank accounts.

Former Chief Doc McNeil Matthews, 48, of Hollywood got two years and nine months behind bars. Summerville businesswoman Mary Jo Thomas-Delaney, 68, was sentenced to a year and two months.

A jury convicted them in July of plotting to secretly inflate payments from a federal grant to build a new fire station, then divvy up the extra among themselves and others. Former Assistant Fire Chief Charles Riddle, 45, also accepted proceeds but pleaded guilty earlier this year and agreed to help prosecutors. He was sentenced in September to two years of probation, including a year on house arrest.

Others took money but were not charged.

The Fire District in rural western Charleston County already was cash-strapped when the loss of $183,000 worsened its fiscal straits, a hole that officials say they're still digging out of. Matthews and Thomas-Delaney must repay their ill-gotten gains: more than $30,000 apiece.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel noted that both defendants had violated the public's trust, a crime that deserves a prison sentence to dissuade further breeches.

"It is a big deal," he said. "We've got to protect the integrity of public dollars."

The federal government approved a $1.6 million grant for the new station in 2009, and Thomas-Delaney's Grant Services LLC was later hired to administer the contract.

But about $200,000 in other bills would be paid during the project without proper approval, prosecutors said. Matthews took about $37,000, and Thomas-Delaney got $32,000. Matthews had also been accused of inflating his leave balances and cashing it in.

Officials noticed financial irregularities connected with Matthews' leave time, prompting an investigation that uncovered other shortcomings.

Gergel said Tuesday that once it was uncovered, the evidence showed "blatant kickbacks" that "just stunk to the high heavens."

"He looted the fire department," Gergel added of Matthews' role. "It looks like he saw it as his private piggy bank."

The two were sentenced during separate hearings. They were allowed to remain free on bail while awaiting orders to report to prison.

Both had faced even more time behind bars. Federal sentencing guidelines, which only suggest to judges a possible prison term, called for up to three and a half years for Matthews and nearly three years for Thomas-Delaney.

Thomas-Delaney, a half-dozen loved ones and defense attorney Peter Shahid of Charleston pleaded for a more lenient punishment that would allow her to serve confinement at home. They cited her failing health, dedication to her community and otherwise straightforward, crime-free life.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I take full responsibility for my actions. ... I'm afraid to go to prison."

Matthews, a father of three, said little in his own defense. After spending time in the Army, he returned to his native South Carolina in 1991 and continued his public service, defense lawyer Bill Thrower of West Ashley said.

Matthews said the Fire District, where he had worked for 25 years, was already coming up short on bills before he took over as chief.

"I did a lot of good things, too," he said.

But current Fire Chief Larry Garvin said the district still struggles to buy new equipment, award raises to firefighters and hire new ones. Two fire stations remain closed because of the district's financial woes, he said.

The embezzlement scheme played a significant role in the dilemma, he said.

"By stealing this money," Garvin said, "(they) stole from the taxpayers."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.