A change of venue was granted Wednesday morning in the $1.3 million Neshoba County overtime scandal for each of the three former county employees indicted on seven counts of embezzlement while in public office.

Specially-appointed Circuit Court Judge William Barnett of Jackson granted the change of venue but denied motions by the defense for some of the indictments to be dismissed. The defense attorney was denied a request to call five witnesses to testify, including two supervisors and the former county administrator.

After meeting with attorneys in chambers for an extended period following his rulings, Judge Barnett set the first trial for Sept. 26. He ruled that the trial would be held in Rankin County if a courtroom was available. If not, he said jurors from Rankin County would be brought to Neshoba County to hear the first trial.

The accused, former county payroll clerk Tammy Gomillion, 49, of Highway 427, former purchasing clerk Julie Faye Russell, 54, of Highway 486, and former bookkeeper Jill Watkins, 48, of Road 383, were indicted separately on Sept. 1. The indictments charged that the embezzlement stemmed back to 2008.

District Attorney Mark Duncan said the three would be tried separately.

A decision has not been made as to which of the three would be tried first, Duncan said Wednesday following the judge’s ruling.

In seeking a change of venue, Bill Ready Jr. of Meridian, attorney for the three women, told the court that they would not be able to receive a fair trial in Neshoba County because of “excessive publicity” and “highly inflammatory news reports,” citing The Neshoba Democrat and WTOK-TV in Meridian.

Ready cited about 30 articles published about the case in The Neshoba Democrat from 2014 through 2016.

He told the court that there was an excessive amount of coverage on Facebook, which sparked a large number of comments about his three clients.

There have also been death threats, Ready said.

District Attorney Mark Duncan told the court that he had lived in Neshoba County all his life and that he felt 12 impartial jurors could be chosen.

However, Duncan said the “risk of reversible error would be too great here.”

He cited a case in north Mississippi which was reversed by the Court of Appeals where a “significant number of people raised their hand when asked if they had heard about the case” during voir dire or jury selection.

“Probably, 100 percent here would say yes,” Duncan said.

He asked the judge to bring jurors here from another county to hear the case.

He said the county could accommodate the jurors and it would save money not to have to transport witnesses to another county.

“The convenience of witnesses is a factor,” Duncan said. “It would be easier for everybody involved.”

In addition, Duncan said the people of Neshoba County are “entitled to see this trial. It is their money alleged to have been taken. They are entitled to come to court and it would be more convenient for them to do so here.”

Ready disagreed.

He told the court that the potential would still be great for a juror to hear comments about the case in a restaurant or a hotel because of “the newspaper’s one sided biases against my clients.”

He told the court having outside jurors hearing the case in Neshoba County would “severely prejudice” his clients’ rights for a fair trial.

In the motion by the defense to dismiss five of the indictments and a part of a sixth one, Ready told the court that the time limit was out for prosecution.

He had subpoenaed five people to testify for the defense, telling the court that his clients were paid through proper county procedures.

“There was no cover up, nothing kept from public view,” Ready said.

Assistant District Attorney Steven Kilgore responded that embezzlement was excluded from the statute of limitations.

“It was a continuing offense,” he said, voicing objections to witness testimony.

“It’s a black and white question for the court,” Kilgore told the judge.

Ready disagreed.

“Embezzlement is done behind closed doors and kept from employers,” he said. “That is not what happened here. It was in the open. They turned in time sheets.”

Judge Barnett denied the motion without hearing testimony.

“The statute is pretty clear,” he said.

Ready had subpoenaed Board of Supervisors Attorney Wade White,  District 5 Supervisor Keith Lillis, District 2 Supervisor Kevin Cumberland, former County Administrator Benjie Coats and former Sheriff Donnie Adkins.

All were present in the courtroom, though White had filed a motion to quash his subpoena, saying as board attorney his “communications, advise and counsel are privileged and not discoverable.”

The motion was dropped after the judge’s ruling.

The seven indictments charge that the three former county employees submitted “fraudulent overtime statements” from January 2008 to October 2014 and received payment for overtime that was not worked by virtue of their positions as county employees.

Gomillion, Russell and Watkins were terminated after a near four-hour executive session by the Neshoba County Board of Supervisors and the Board Attorney on Oct. 24, 2014, amid accusations in a formal order entered into the minutes that they “took public money without authorization.”

State Auditor Stacy Pickering has demanded a total of $1.3 million from Gomillion, Russell and Watkins for the overtime payments as well as investigative costs and interests.

The demands were served to them on June 26, 2015, and followed months of investigation.

Gomillion was issued a demand from the State Auditor in the amount of $444,834.56, which includes $349,011.66 in fraudulent overtime, $91,908.84 in interest and $3,914.06 in investigative costs.

Russell was told to pay $449,130.47, including $351,872.03 in fraudulent overtime, $92,393.30 in interest and $4,865.14 in investigative costs.

Watkins was ordered to pay $459,630.65, which includes $356,624.67 in fraudulent overtime, $98,744.41 in interest and $$4,261.57 in investigative costs.