ABOUT THIS SERIES: This article is Part II of a Covington News series explaining what P-cards are, analyzing the usage and spending habits of Newton County P-card holders, and uncovering why residents are calling for change. Part I was published in the July 24-25 print edition and is available to read here.
That’s what the policy and procedures framework adopted in 2013 says concerning how Newton County employees and elected officials are to use their purchasing card (P-card).
As reported in Part I of a series on P-cards within the July 24-25 edition of The Covington News, the cards are simply meant to be a “more efficient, cost-effective” way to complete small-dollar purchasing transactions, but not “bypass or avoid appropriate purchasing procedures.”
Though the cards operate similarly to a personal credit card, there is to be nothing personal about them except the name listed on the card.
Per the policy, P-cards are “not for personal use,” and must be used for buying “supplies that are deemed necessary for the operation of the county,” and for “legitimate business purposes only.” P-cards may not be used for “entertainment, alcohol or cash advances.”
In recent weeks, residents have raised concerns over P-cards and even accused officials and employees of misuse.
Many have alleged some purchases previously made public could be classified as personal and illegitimate concerning county business.
Others want clarity on how certain purchases may or may not be deemed personal and for county business.
In an effort to provide this clarity, The Covington News submitted an open records request to the Newton County finance department, calling for all P-card spending records of all 50 Newton County P-card holders from June 2020 to June 2021.
Here’s what we found:
In summary, spending records appeared to be relatively clean and properly maintained by the finance department. There were few instances where some P-card holders did not keep receipts for documentation, as policy requires.
There were also a small number of purchases that were, or could be considered, for personal use, but in most cases the purchase was made by mistake, properly addressed and paid back in a timely manner.
Upon review, records showed the majority of P-card holders used their cards to purchase food, fuel/maintenance for county vehicles and office supplies. There were also many instances where P-cards were used to pay for government training courses, certification training and related fees, such as lodging expenses, fuel and food.
Dorothea Bailey-Butts, former coroner ($5,000 monthly spending limit):
Records for May 2021 show Bailey-Butts only made one purchase with her P-card before resigning on May 28. It was for office supplies from Office Depot in the amount of $452.23.
Marcello Banes, chairman ($20,000 monthly spending limit):
For June 2020, Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes had a spending total of $488.27. He paid a total of $276.18 for food for eight different “meetings with constituents” that took place at restaurants. He paid $52.99 for a monthly Adobe Creative subscription. The remainder was spent on county vehicle maintenance and fuel.
According to July 2020 records, the chairman spent a total of $930.55. He paid $286.10 for food for six different “meetings with constituents” (one of which he had no receipt) and $79.61 for birthday lunch, flowers and cards for a “Mother Jackie Smith.” Banes made a purchase at Parker’s Village at St. Simons Island in the amount of $46.61. There was no receipt and no description of the purchase recorded. He also did not have a receipt for a $44.38 fuel purchase. The remainder of the purchases were for office supplies, vehicle maintenance and fuel.
August 2020 records showed Banes spent a total of $793.05. He paid $394.45 on food for 10 instances described as “meeting with constituents” that took place at restaurants. One of those instances was with only one person listed as Cheneeka Banes, who is the chairman’s spouse. The chairman paid $23.22 for the couple’s meal at Skrimp Shack in Covington. During the month, Banes spent $116.86 on office supplies. He spent $54.99 on county vehicle maintenance and $121.22 on fuel. Banes did not file a receipt for one fuel purchase in the amount of $46.19. He noted “COVID-19” as a reason for no receipt.
A charge of $105.53 for a taxi/Lyft was also listed, and although Banes noted it was a personal charge, he also pledged to pay the charge back. There were no documents showing if Banes did, in fact, pay the charge.
Banes’ September 2020 report showed he spent a total of $383.52. He paid for food for seven different meetings with constituents at restaurants, totaling $218.48. The remaining four purchases were for office supplies, vehicle maintenance and fuel.
October 2020 records showed Banes spent a total of $970.73. He paid for food for 10 different meetings with constituents at restaurants, totaling $439.60. For three of the meetings, Banes did not keep a receipt, twice citing in statements that his “phone crashed” as the reason. Banes also spent $314.59 on “chairman and homeless shelter supplies.” The remaining balance was spent toward vehicle and office supply expenses.
Banes’ spending report for November 2020 showed he spent a total of $1,220.96. He paid $475 for a training class for Commissioner Alana Sanders. Banes paid for food for six different meetings with constituents, totaling $324.82. Other purchases included office supplies, vehicle maintenance and fuel expenses.
December 2020 records showed Banes spent a total of $1,354.92. He paid $600 for a training course for former coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts. He spent $566.15 on food for nine instances described as “meeting with constituents” that took place at restaurants. He spent $70.74 on fuel and $29.99 on “monthly maintenance” for his county vehicle. $52.99 was spent on a subscription for an office-related item.
January 2021 records showed Banes spent a total of $1,214.83 with his P-card. He paid a total of $289.14 for food at five different “meetings with constituents” held at restaurants. A sixth charge for food totaled $86.88 for a “late executive session” of the Newton County Board of Commissioners. He paid $271.76 for “work boots for work sites.” He also paid $85.58 for cell phone screen protectors. Remaining purchases were for office supplies, vehicle maintenance and fuel.
Banes’ February 2021 records show he spent a total of $1,512.26 with his P-card. Of the total, $163.50 was spent at Professional Cleaners for Banes’ “uniforms.” He paid for two lunches with employees that totaled $96.45. He also paid for four lunches “with constituents” that cost a total of $110.51. He purchased an “office television for CNN, MSNBC for COVID-19 monitoring” from Walmart in the amount of $318 and paid $7.46 for a warranty plan for the TV. He also paid $400 for training classes for Commissioner Alana Sanders. The remaining purchases were for office supplies, vehicle maintenance and fuel.
March 2021 records showed Banes spent a total of $1,371.03. The largest purchase was for a $510 training course for Commissioner Alana Sanders. Banes paid for seven lunches with constituents, totaling $229.10. One of the lunches was, again, with his wife, Cheneeka. The two dined at Waffle House for $30.92. The chairman also paid $24.34 for a “departmental treat” for the elections department from Bread and Butter Bakery. The remaining purchases included office supplies, fuel and vehicle maintenance.
April 2021 records showed Banes spent a total of $641.65 with his P-card. Of the total, $106.08 was on “lunch with constituents” on four different occasions; $312.57 was on office related expenses and $223 was spent on “county uniform cleaning.”
Records from May 2021 show Banes spent a total of $1,553.15 during the month. $1,164.24 was spent for three different training classes for Commissioners Demond Mason and Alana Sanders. Banes only paid for food for two lunches with constituents, totaling $72.54. He paid $212 for “monthly uniform cleaning and maintenance.” The remainder of his purchases were for office supplies and vehicle maintenance.
Banes’ June 2021 records showed his spending total was $460.98. The majority of the month’s spending was for an educational training class for the county’s deputy clerk in the amount of $325. There was only one “meeting with constituents” recorded that took place at the Town House Cafe, which Banes paid $33 for food. $52.99 was paid for a monthly Adobe Creative subscription. $49.99 was spent on two county vehicle maintenance details.
Over the course of the year, Banes’ P-card spending totaled $12,895.90, according to his spending records. Statements confirmed $3,633.43 (28.2%) was spent on food-related purchases, and of those food related purchases, $3,346.15 (25.9% of total spending) was spent specifically on food for meetings and lunches with constituents.
Sheriff Ezell Brown ($5,000 monthly spending limit):
For June 2020, Sheriff Ezell Brown used his P-card to spend $235.46. Purchases included fuel expenses, advertising expenses and an Adobe Creative monthly subscription.
July 2020 records showed similar spending habits to the previous month for Brown. He spent a total of $188.20 with his P-card. Purchases were for fuel expenses, advertising and an Adobe Creative monthly subscription.
For August 2020, Brown’s spending totaled $1,570,30. The majority of those expenses came from a $465.54 purchase from Ingles as part of thesheriff’s office Random Acts of Kindness program. He also bought a funeral wreath for Jack Simpson’s funeral for $400. Documents show Brown reimbursed the county for both purchases from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office Deputies Who Care Fund.
In September 2020 records, Brown showed a spending total of $1,128.28, though only making five purchases. His report showed a $989 purchase from Marquis Who’s Who Ventures in New Jersey, which Brown later explained was a personal item charged to his P-card by mistake.
“Unfortunately, I have three debit cards that are the exact same color and very similar in design,” Brown wrote in his financial statements dated Sept. 22, 2020.
He said he mistook the county P-card as his own, but wasn’t aware of his error until receiving the statement.
“With that being said, I have attached a check for reimbursement to cover the payment,” Brown stated. “Since this error, I have written ‘Newton County’ at the top of my P-card to immediately identify it.”
Documents did reveal that Brown submitted a check dated Sept. 21 in the amount of $989 to pay back the county.
From October 2020 to April 2021, there were no other purchases made by Brown that The Covington News deemed questionable, unusual or required explanation, largely in part well-documented bookkeeping by Brown and the finance department.
Reports from May 2021 show Brown spent more than usual, totaling $3,956.62. However, the report was inflated due to an error committed by a vendor. Brown’s P-card was mistakenly charged $1,305.13 twice by “The Award Group” for the purchase of of certificates and frames. The charge was also recorded in the sheriff’s June 2021 statements. Through documentation provided by the sheriff, the matter was shown to be resolved.
Also within the June 2021, there was a $113.50 charge to Baymont Inn & Suites in Covington. Brown stated the charge was an error and the hotel would be sending credit. There were no documents with the month’s spending records to confirm credit was given.
Annual P-card spending total: $9,672.91
Notable purchases by other cardholders from sheriff’s office:
• In June 2020, Capt. Marty Roberts spent $572.25 for food, snacks and drinks for deputies working the rally on the Square that lasted a reported seven hours. The next month, Roberts spent more than $300 for refreshments for deputies working another rally. In November 2020, Roberts spent more than $500 on food and supplies for officers on multiple occasions, including K-9 Deputy Riley. No purpose was listed.
• Training & Travel — July 2020 — spent $800 for floral arrangements for Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. and Deputy Steven Minor.
• In September 2020, Sammy Banks spent more than $100 for snacks and drinks for officers working a protest. In October 2020, he spent more than $60 on two lunches for himself, the sheriff and three others. In January 2021, Banks reported spending $175.08 on meals at Cracker Barrel for the S.W.A.T. Annual Christmas Brunch.
• Richard A. Howard; November 2020; spent $95.53 on Chick-fil-A sandwiches and fries. No purpose was listed.
James Brown, Cornish Creek plant manager ($5,000):
Despite an above average monthly spending limit when compared to other county P-card holders, Brown’s usage was quite limited and maintained relatively low amounts. The most he spent in one month came May 2021 when he totaled approximately $1,700. Every other month was $1,000 or less.
A spending report for June 2020 was not available, and in July 2020, Brown only made one purchase for a training course in the amount of $210. However, the August 2020 report showed he spent $629 on a recruitment testing tool and an operator learning and recertification course for an employee. An “accidental” purchase at Chick-fil-A in the amount of $3.86 was listed on the statement. Brown noted his intention to make “restitution” but there were no supporting documents.
For September 2020, Brown spent a total of $575.38. He made two food-related purchases, totaling $85.38, for a “Water System Strategic Plan” meeting and a luncheon. The remaining balance was for American Water Works Association membership renewals.
Another food purchase came in October 2020 for a “departmental meeting” in the amount of $91.97. He also spent $55 on a membership renewal from BJ’s Wholesale Club and $12.84 for cleaning supplies.
In November 2020, Brown’s only P-card purchases were for food in the amount of $78 to Longhorn Steakhouse with the business purpose described as “strategic planning,” and $50.24 to Donut King with the purpose described as “departmental meeting.”
In December 2020, Brown made two purchases totaling $1,006.24. More than $400 was spent at Jersey Mike’s for refreshments for a groundbreaking ceremony, and $597.50 was spent to purchase tumblers for a groundbreaking ceremony.
Newton County Finance Director Brittany White said the county is given a certain amount of funds each year to pay for “wellness prizes” that can include tumblers, coolers and coffee makers, as well as exercise equipment located on the third floor of the administration building— all paid for by the county’s insurance provider, Cigna. In addition, those funds also pay for half of the county wellness director’s salary. This year, White said, the county received $125,000.
In January 2021, Brown only spent $147, which included $97 at Tubby Tom’s for food for a “strategic planning meeting,” and a $50 purchase for classes at the University of Texas at Dallas Erik Johnson School of Engineering and Computer Science.
Brown spent a total of $955.98 in February 2021. Records show $93 were for food for a “strategic planning meeting” at Jim N’ Nick’s Community BBQ restaurant in Conyers. The remaining plans was attributed to business expenditures.
More food purchases were recorded in the March 2021 report, totaling $38.48 at Little Phillies to supply food for a “departmental meeting.”
Spending records for April, May and June 2021 showed Brown collectively spent nearly $2,500, but all were related to Cornish Creek operations and county vehicle maintenance. No food purchases.
Annual P-card spending total: $6,127.76.
Marcus Jordan, tax commissioner ($5,000):
No spending records were available for Tax Commissioner Marcus Jordan until November 2020. After reviewing monthly reports from November 2020-June 2021, The Covington News found purchases made with his P-card were only to pay for government training and related expenses.
November 2020: $4,900
December 2020: $2,487.25
January 2021: $1,435
February 2021: No spending reported.
March 2021: No spending reported.
April 2021: No spending reported.
May 2021: $924
June 2021: $1,117.70
Annual P-card spending total: $10,863.95
Randy McGinley, district attorney ($1,500):
Only one purchase had been made by District Attorney Randy McGinley over the last year, which came in May 2021 for a government training class in the amount of $227.96.
Leslie Smith, victim-witness director for DA’s Office ($5,000):
Victim-Witness Director Leslie Smith has used her P-card sparingly over the last 12 months, according to spending records.
In July 2020, she paid $297.75 to cover costs of the new District Attorney’s Office website.
In October 2020, she paid $12.84 for Ribbon for Domestic Violence Month Awareness Bows and $388 for Domestic Violence Awareness T-shirts.
In April 2021, she spent $88.99 at Walmart for snacks and drinks for witnesses during trial preparation and office supplies.
Annual P-card spending total: $787.58
Randi Fincher, purchasing director ($20,000 monthly spending limit):
June 2020: No spending reported.
July 2020: $765.18 – for various tags renewals for county vehicles.
August 2020: $13.31 – for tag renewals.
September 2020: $117.81 – for tag renewals.
October 2020: $57.40 – for tag renewals.
November 2020: No spending reported.
December 2020: $25 – membership renewal for Governmental Purchasing Association of Georgia.
January 2021: $538.09 – $531 was for NIGP codes from the GPAG; the remaining $7.09 was for tag renewals.
February 2021: $632.37 – $382.37 was for code enforcement uniforms; $250 was for government training courses and certifications fees for three different employees.
March 2021: $244.53 – $225 was for training fees; $19.53 was for “six chargers for sheriff.”
April 2021: $1,764.23 – $214.23 was for tag renewals; remainder for training courses.
May 2021: $10.50 – for tag renewals. There was a $190 credit which was a refund for a cancelled training class.
June 2021: $108.65 – tag renewals.
Annual P-card spending total: $4,277.07
Coming soon, in Part III of a series on P-cards, The Covington News will share comments from a few of the county’s P-card holders as they’re given the opportunity to explain their spending habits and address concerns of the community.
Editor’s Note: Due to space constraints in its print edition, The Covington News only detailed the P-card spending records of high-ranking officials and employees that were viewed as questionable or notable, as well as P-card holders with higher monthly spending limits. Spending records for all cardholders retrieved as result of an Open Records Request are available for viewing in their entirety below.