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Newton chairman defends P-Card spending
Social media group alleges use for personal gain
State of the County
Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes presents a "State of the County" address in 2018 at the Turner Lake Complex. - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. — County Chairman Marcello Banes is defending more than four years of expenses he reported on his county purchasing card against allegations he repeatedly used the card for personal gain.

Banes said the reports he provided on his Facebook page contain receipts and details for every charge beginning in 2017 and running through this year.   

The payments include everything from car washes to restaurant tabs and plane flights.

“I have attached the monthly P-Card report that we issue to put a rest to the false allegations that I have done something wrong,” Banes said.   

“I have followed the county's policies and procedures and the reports and receipts are verified by the Finance Department. My P-Card is open to the public,” Banes said. 

The administrator of a newly-created Facebook page titled “Newton Exposer” — which classifies itself as a “Media/News Company” — has not identified himself or herself publicly. 

Based on postings on the page, it appears either to be linked to or supported by a former county elected official but that could not be immediately verified.

Since its creation on June 6, the page’s administrator has made a series of claims and allegations against Banes and other county officials, Covington city officials, and a local attorney tied to Banes.

In a series of posts, the administrator questions numerous P-Card payments Banes listed on his reports. 

The questions provide little context but speculate about if they are related to such issues as Banes’ 2020 lawsuit against the county government in which he sought back wages. 

They also refer to numerous charges listed at area car washes for his county vehicle, and at area restaurants for meals with constituents, current and former county officials, and employees.

Among the meals listed were at least three with his personal attorney, Stephanie Lindsey, who is representing him in the back wages lawsuit against the county that is under appeal to the state Court of Appeals.

Banes said in a posting on his Facebook page that he uses his P-Card “for the entire Board of Commissioners' training, travel, meals and hotels.”

“It is also used to pay for staff training, continuing education classes and for some supplies for the chairman's office,” he wrote. 

The report lists payments for lodging and related costs with attending Association County Commissioners of Georgia meetings, which typically are held in the Savannah area.

Banes admitted he used his P-Card to buy plane tickets for his wife to travel with him but he repaid the county each time.

“Whenever my wife traveled with me my office purchased her ticket on the P-Card so that we could sit together on the flight and I immediately reimbursed the county the funds for her ticket,” Banes said in a post. 

He also provided a list of about $1,400 in reimbursements he made to the county for personal purchases using the card between 2017 and 2020. 

“Anytime, I incurred expenses above the county amount, I paid the difference,” he said. 

The reports published on “Newton Exposer” have “been redrafted to mislead the public,” Banes said.

Documents posted on the week-old Facebook page that lists his P-Card expenses had been altered, he said.

“As you look and compare the original reports to the reports presented to the public you will see the person providing the fake reports removed important information about the items,” Banes said. “They also added items that are not in the original reports and not on my P-Card.”

A total of 51 county officials from 14 county departments; the tax commissioner, district attorney and public defender’s offices; and juvenile and superior courts have P-Cards they use to make needed purchases.

The cards are linked to the county computer system and effectively pull funds from the cardholder’s part of the county budget — not allowing them to use the cards if their limits are exceeded, finance officials have said. 

Limits range from $500 to $20,000, which is the amount of Banes’ card limit.

Banes said he had “suggested” to Board of Commissioners members that they make “all” of their P-Card reports public by publishing them online monthly.

The county government has some history in recent years of employee abuse of the purchasing system.

Kevin O’Brien, a former county fire chief, was indicted in January 2016 after an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation into his use of a county P-Card for personal purchases.

O’Brien pleaded guilty to four counts of Theft by Taking later that year and was fined and sentenced to one year in prison and 20 years on probation.