Former Newton County Fire Services Chief Kevin O’Brien was sentenced to 20 years’ probation with the first year spent in prison, fined $1,000 for each of the four counts of theft by taking he was charged with and ordered to pay the county back $16,991.
Judge Horace Johnson delivered the sentence Thursday, despite hearing from O’Brien’s wife, brothers, sisters and parents that he shouldn’t spend any time in prison. O'Brien was taken into custody Thursday. He pled guilty to theft by taking for using the county’s purchasing card to buy $16,991 worth of fencing, ceiling fans, tools and other home improvement items last month.
District Attorney Layla Zon presented 24 photos, showing screen doors, fencing material, bathroom and kitchen tiles, kitchen cabinets, recreational and camping equipment, a hammock, U.S. flag, plantation shutters, outdoor lighting, ceiling fans, tools and other home improvement items during the sentencing. All the items were purchased on the purchasing card.
“He intentionally lied,” Zon told the judge. “He said the hammock was for the Relay for Life event. He, himself, as the purchasing card holder and administrator, filled out the [expense] forms and he lied.
Zon said O’Brien was paid $85,000 a year and used the purchasing card as a personal bonus. “He was stealing, not to put bread on the table, but for luxury items.”
She said O’Brien betrayed the taxpayers of the county with his actions. Taxpayers, she said, “couldn’t afford a Jimmy Buffet-type outdoor area.
“Public confidence in the integrity of government officials and particularly public safety officials is very important,” she said.
Zon asked that O’Brien be sentenced to five years in prison, and 20 years on probation, reminding the judge that the thefts happened throughout a period of four years, between 2012 and 2015.
Defense attorney Steven M. Frey, of The Frey Law Firm in Jonesboro, called witnesses to testify on behalf of O’Brien. All said O’Brien had admitted his guilt, but he was a good man with a family to support. Since leaving the Newton County Fire Department, he has worked menial jobs, they said.
They also told the judge the last year had been humiliating for the entire family.
“The state is asking for penitentiary time,” Frey said. “While I don’t agree with it, if the state rules [imprisonment], allow him to work to contribute to his family.” Frey also added allowing O’Brien to work would help him pay restitution to the county.
Judge hands down sentence
“Often times the court seeks to judge whether someone’s a good or bad person,” said Johnson, when rendering his verdict. “My job is to treat people in the same situation alike.”
Johnson then handed down O’Brien’s sentence, including forbidding him from working for any local, state or federal government or in a position of fiduciary responsibility for the length of his probation.
Under the first offense rule, O’Brien’s record will be clean after he finishes serving out his probation.
Zon said she was generally pleased with the sentence. “I think the judge’s words at sentencing spoke to concerns I have. He [O’Brien] was in a position of public trust.
“The public is paying attention and they should be and so should all of us working in local government,” she said. “This [type of behavior] isn’t to be tolerated in Newton County.”
She also said that O’Brien will be sent to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson for assessment before being assigned to another state prison to serve out his sentence.
Investigating misuse of P-card
O’Brien had been indicted by a Grand Jury in January on charges involving the illegal use of a county purchasing card. According to Zon, following an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the District Attorney’s Office matched purchases made on O’Brien’s county-issued P-card with SKU numbers. The comparison showed that O’Brien had bought a gate, fencing materials, ceiling fans, lawn furniture, an inflatable kayak, wood shutters, tools and other items that appeared to be for home renovation, remodeling and decorating.
The four counts were for actions spread throughout different periods between January 2012 and Sept. 21, 2015. O’Brien was put on unpaid administrative leave on Oct. 14, following an emergency executive session by the Newton County Board of Commissioners.
O’Brien was placed on unpaid leave by former Interim County Manager Harry Owens on Oct. 14. However, a settlement to pay O’Brien through Jan. 17 was reached by the former fire chief and the county in November.