COVINGTON — An FBI investigation into allegations of financial misconduct by Newton County officials appears to have ended with no plans to pursue prosecution, according to the county.
County Attorney Megan Martin told the Board of Commissioners at its April 6 meeting that the allegations, which arose from a 2016 forensic audit, had been investigated by the FBI and that there was “no indication whatsoever of any findings of any criminal activities.”
While the FBI has not stated that the investigation is closed, or will even confirm that they did an investigation, Martin said the FBI had returned county financial records used in the investigation, and it would be unlikely that a case could move forward without those documents.
The county attorney’s statement Tuesday night was particularly welcomed by District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who had been linked to allegations of financial mismanagement detailed in the audit in connection with the Nelson Heights Community Center. Henderson sits on the board of directors of the Nelson Heights Center.
Henderson said Tuesday he had been falsely suspected of stealing from the center, and he was pleased to be vindicated after so many years.
“There was nothing to it then and nothing to it now,” he said.
He said the allegations came at a particularly difficult time, when his son had suffered serious injuries in an ATV accident and was in a coma.
“I have never stolen anything … Everything I got in my entire life — I don’t have that much — but I worked like hell to get it, and I cherish it,” he said.
BOC Chairman Marcello Banes said he was glad the county could now move on and called for commissioners to work toward more unity.
“Keep working together. Please don’t let the OneNewton initiative lapse,” he said. “That’s what we stand for, that’s what we believe in, that’s what our strategic plan is.”
The Board of Commissioners called for the criminal investigation in the fall of 2016 after a forensic audit alleged that Newton County taxpayers suffered “financial damages” of more than $25 million, based on the investigation of several county departments and operations. The audit findings were turned over to law enforcement to determine if any criminal conduct took place — including the Newton County District Attorney’s Office, the GBI and the FBI.
The audit, conducted by accountant David Sawyer, claimed that the damages were the result of mismanagement at the Recreation Commission, $11,853; Nelson Heights Community Center, $42,648; the proposed Bear Creek reservoir, $25,569,421; landfill/convenience centers, undetermined amount; and SPLOST/impact fees, $4,123,474. The audit also questioned some internal procedures in the county’s Finance Department.
In the audit Sawyer alleged that at least $42,648 was directed toward Nelson Heights Community Services at a time when Henderson was an officer in the organization and that Henderson “received preferential and financially beneficial treatment from Newton County.”
Henderson denied the allegations and called for the audit to be expanded, accusing two fellow commissioners of corruption related to the county landfill and a road widening project.
Two months later the Newton County grand jury called on the county to focus on the audit findings that questioned the county’s management practices. The grand jurors recommended that the commissioners, county manager and professional staff “work very quickly in a cooperative effort to put in place specific standard operating procedures that assure accountability.”
County Manager Lloyd Kerr said at the time that county departments and officials had done just that.
“We have begun moving forward and have enacted sound financial management policies, made corrective adjustments regarding procedures, and enacted personnel changes since the report was undertaken and have begun to bolster the ethics areas of all our rules and procedures,” Kerr said.
Among the changes were enactment of a new form of government that clarifies the roles of commissioner, county manager and staff; and new rules and procedures regarding accountability, finance and oversight.
The FBI’s decision to return the county’s files also appears to end investigation into accusations that former county attorney Tommy Craig committed any wrongdoing related to the Bear Creek reservoir project.
In the audit, Sawyer had alleged that Craig intentionally kept the project alive for more than 15 years even though he knew — or should have known — that the reservoir would not be permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Board of Commissioners voted in 2015 to shelve the project after the county’s permit application was rejected by the Corps.
Craig disputed the allegations in 2016, saying Sawyer was not qualified to conduct the audit and that his research and findings were faulty.
“Sawyer took on a task he is not qualified by knowledge or experience to perform,” wrote Craig in a statement. “The Board of Commissioners should demand a complete refund of the approximately $350,000 I hear was spent with Sawyer’s firm: it was a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.”