Former Newton County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien was booked into the Newton County Detention Center Friday after a Grand Jury handed down an indictment for four counts of “theft by taking by a government employee.”
Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon said O’Brien was indicted after a case involving illegal use of a county purchasing card was brought in front of a grand jury. Each count was for theft of over $1,500, which makes it a felony for anyone. However, Zon said that O’Brien was a government employee, so any amount stolen, whether it was over $1,500 or not, is considered a felony. Conservatively, she said, the district attorney’s office estimates O’Brien took between $17,000 to $20,000 throughout the last four years.
“We’re still going through [the charges],” she said, and had been “literally until midnight on Thursday evening, adding up everything.”
Zon said a warrant for O’Brien’s arrest had been prepared in advance in the event the Grand Jury indictment was handed down Friday. She also notified the former fire chief’s attorney that the case would be going to the Grand Jury on Friday.
O’Brien turned himself into the Newton County Sheriff’s Office on Friday. Bond was set for $50,000.
“My understanding is he was booked and posted the bond,” Zon said.
O'Brien was placed on leave after an emergency executive session by the Board of Commissioners (BOC) on Wednesday, Oct. 14. At its next meeting the BOC suspended the use of purchasing cards by all county employees except elected officials, such as the Sheriff and the Chair of the BOC.
Also at that meeting, the commissioners passed a resolution, ordering the hiring of an independent auditing firm with no geographic or political ties to the county, to audit the purchasing card accounts of all county employees. The resolution included instructions to audit cash expenditures as well.
The Certified Public Accountants firm of McNair, McLemore and Middlebrooks and Company, LLC, of Macon was hired to perform the audit.
At the special called meeting of the BOC on Thursday, Jan. 7, the board reported the audit had come back, but cash expenditures had not been included. The Jarrard and Davis legal team was instructed to contact the auditing firm and request the omission be corrected.
Zon said the Newton County Sheriff's Office had received an anonymous tip on May 12 concerning O'Brien's alleged use of the county purchasing card for personal expenses. Two days later, the sheriff's office referred the information to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).
On May 26, Zon said, the District Attorney's office received similar information from a source concerned about the chief's possible misuse of county funds. She formally requested GBI's assistance in investigating the matter on June 3, and received the completed investigation from the state agency on Oct. 9.
O’Brien was hired as interim chief in May of 2011 after serving as deputy chief of operations and training, and was officially hired in December of 2012.
The Newton County Fire Service Department protects an area of 278 square miles has a force of 80 full-time firefighters.