COVINGTON, Ga. - A document obtained by The Covington News indicates Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown asked the Board of Commissioners for a pay raise and expense allowance increase to avoid having to disclose who taxpayer money is being spent on.
Commissioners approved a monthly pay increase of $323.59 and an increase of $200 in Brown’s monthly expense allowance July 17.
In a Feb. 22 memo to county Finance Director Nicole Cross and then-county Human Resources Director Keyra Fray, Brown expressed concern that names on receipts are required when county purchasing cards are used for dining.
“On Tuesday night, Nicole and I had an in-depth conversation concerning the use of my P-card and the fact that it is now required or being asked to submit names on any and all receipts related to any form of dining”, Brown wrote in the memo. “We discussed the fact that I meet with political leaders from all over Georgia and surrounding states, and the fact that I would have to disclose whom I am dining with.
“It could be misconstrued by someone who’s not familiar with my role.”
In response to a question concerning the receipt requirement, Cross told The News, “Receipts have always been required.”
The county’s travel policy adopted Feb. 21, 2017 includes wording that “employees should be prepared to identify and justify the need for the meal in relation to their responsibilities as a county employee.”
“Expense reports for P-cards are completed after the charge has always been made so we had some instances of exceptions due to lost receipts, only the credit card slip being submitted, etc.,” she said.
“Around July 2017, as a best practice regarding P-cards, we implemented a strict policy that provided for no exceptions,” she said. “If a receipt was lost, not detailed or did not include the required information, then the charge would be considered personal and the employee would be required to pay the county back.”
In a statement to The News Friday afternoon, Brown said he did not have any secretive intentions with his memo.
I would like to make it abundantly clear that I will never do anything to embarrass the Office of Sheriff, the county, those whom I represent and believe in me, and most importantly my family and friends.Ezell Brown, Newton County Sheriff
“I had no underlying motive of deception in my February memo,” he said. “When I made the request, and still today, I feel that my personal expense account, as well as the personal expense accounts of other elected constitutional officers, is protected by the law and that no one has the right to know who we dine with or personal expense thereof.
“As I carry out my official duties throughout the state and the nation, I may dine with citizens, informants, members of my staff, judges, state representatives, members of Congress or other elected officials. As Sheriff, I have always maintained an expense account and the law does not dictate how the funds are to be utilized or a catalog of how these funds are spent. For the sake of parties involved, I believe this to be best practice.
“I would like to make it abundantly clear that I will never do anything to embarrass the Office of Sheriff, the county, those whom I represent and believe in me, and most importantly my family and friends.”
Brown also said he plans to retain use of his county P-card.
“As for my P-card, it is used for official county business only and I plan to retain it for such. For example, my P-cards may be used for fuel for travel, ordering supplies, hotel charges for members of my staff, training and other incidentals that may arise for the Office of Sheriff.
“Again, your interpretation of the request may have been gathered as deceptive, but we all have our individual way of writing and understanding. I never believed in doing anything for appearance sake but for the sake of having doing right (sic).”
The mention of P-card use prompted The News to request a list of all county employees in possession of a county-issued card and the county’s credit card statements for the last 18 months.
According to a list received from Cross, there are currently 53 employees with county-issued credit cards. She said county employees are required to complete a form to request a card. The request then has to be approved by the department head and County Manager Lloyd Kerr.
The statements from January 2017 through June 2018 show Newton County paid $398,242.54 in credit card bills for the period. That’s an average of $22,124.59 a month. The largest statements reviewed were the June 15, 2017 bill for $35,616.28 and the May 16, 2018 bill for $33,889.90.
The June 2017 statement includes charges of $10 at the Covington Mr. Car Wash, $31.75 at the Mystic Grill, $104.82 at Baby Cakes Bakery in Porterdale and nearly $9,000 in travel expenses. The May 2018 statement includes charges totaling $280.00 over a two-day period at Firehouse Subs, $37.33 at the Donut King and nearly $1,300 for a Savannah vacation rental.
Other charges observed on the remaining statements range from $6.94 at a Covington McDonald’s to $224.06 at Chick-fil-A to $124.00 spent on window tinting and $1,100 spent at a St. Simons Island resort.
“Each P-card holder submits an expense report to finance that includes a description, amount and account coding,” Cross said. “Receipts are attached to the expense report. Finance then posts the journal entry and codes all the charges to the correct department and account number. Synovus bills us directly for the entire county monthly.”
After reviewing the 18 months of credit card bills obtained, The News requested a sampling of around 100 receipts and the county documentation required to justify the charges.
Among the receipts The News requested are for an $88.74 charge at the Ross Store in Covington and three charges totaling $1,100.00 in one day at LongHorn Steakhouse. Covington News staff received the receipts Friday and plans to review them in the coming weeks. Additional reports will be published as information is obtained.
County employees’ use of P-cards came to the forefront in January 2016 when former fire Chief Kevin O’Brien was indicted after an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations into his use of a county P-card for personal purchases. He pleaded guilty to four counts of theft by taking later that year and was fined, sentenced to one year in prison and 20 years on probation.