By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Newton DA to make 'assessment' of evidence in reservoir report
2016 audit alleged former county attorney's 'misleading' advice led board to believe in 'feasibility' of failed project
Bear Creek - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County’s new district attorney says he plans to investigate whether any criminal charges are warranted in the case of a reservoir project on which the county spent $25 million before abandoning it in 2015.

District Attorney Randy McGinley said he planned to review a 2016 financial audit by David Sawyer of the Alpharetta accounting firm Frazier & Deeter in the case of the Bear Creek Reservoir project.

McGinley, who was elected Nov. 3 after serving as interim DA, said his office was contacted “some time ago” about the allegations and already had contacted “other agencies” about looking into them. 

“I cannot speak for those other agencies and their actions or lack thereof,” he said. 

“However, simply put, something was sent to our office and it is incumbent upon me, as the district attorney, to determine whether further action should be taken or not.”

He said his job “is to make a fair assessment of the evidence that could be proven in a court of law and apply it to the law.”

“Those two things guide my decisions to proceed on a case or not,” McGinley said. 

“I take that responsibility very seriously, and as with any case that is not formally closed in our office, I am bound by that responsibility.”

He added he could not comment about the specifics of the case.

Sawyer reportedly spoke to both a grand jury and the FBI after the report was released but no charges were filed, an Atlanta TV station reported.

The audit points to former longtime county attorney W.T. "Tommy" Craig as the person primarily responsible for convincing Newton County commissioners to keep working to fund the project despite the population growth it was forecast to serve not materializing.

Craig worked as both the county attorney and “water consultant” responsible for helping gain federal permits for the project.

His attorney, Ed Tolley, told WAGA-TV that his client did not break any laws and the county commission approved the purchase of all property.

Tolley told the TV station that Craig, 71, is recovering from cancer “and unable to defend himself publicly.”

He also said Craig was able to secure federal approval for other reservoirs across Georgia and, as such, was considered a leading expert in the field, Tolley said.

County Commissioner Ronnie Cowan told The Covington News he doubted an investigation would uncover “criminal intent.” 

He said it more likely would find “negligence” because of “sloppy” accounting after the county worked with numerous project managers during the time officials were working on it.

“I don’t see intent,” Cowan said.

Cowan said state and federal investigators did not see enough evidence to warrant criminal charges following the 2016 report — which was released before Cowan took office in 2017. 

In addition, a district attorney’s office typically does not have enough resources for such a major “white collar crime” investigation because it is primarily responsible for prosecuting the numerous property and violent crimes coming through the courts, Cowan said.

The project was abandoned but left the county with enough land to proceed with construction of an additional drinking water source if needed in the future, Cowan said.

County commissioners fired Craig in 2015 after 40 years in the position, in part because of problems with the project.

The county then hired Cumming-based law firm Jarrard & Davis as the government’s attorney, and the firm hired Sawyer to perform a forensic accounting analysis of the work done to secure the land and permits for the reservoir’s construction. 

Sawyer charged in his report about “the now-failed, defunct Bear Creek Reservoir project” that Craig “recklessly wasted county (and) taxpayer funds” on that resulted in the county spending $25 million over 20 years.

The report stated that Craig earned $2 million from the effort despite the land not being used.

Among the land deals Sawyer’s report said were “questionable” was one for purchase of the Gaithers Plantation in south Newton County for $4.1 million.

Craig oversaw the county’s 1995 purchase of the 2,200-acre site from Henry Lassiter, who died in 1994 “and was a known associate of Tommy Craig,” the report stated.

Lassiter and his estate avoided paying property tax of about $2.5 million which the county lost in revenue because the land was publicly owned and undeveloped, the report said. 

On another deal Craig suggested the county pay $1.4 million for 200 acres but agree to give the land back to the original owner for free if the lake was never built — which it did, the TV station reported.

Sawyer said in his report that Craig “made numerous, repeated, misleading, deceptive statements and misrepresentations to the Board of Commissioners and taxpayers about the need, feasibility and achievability” of the proposed reservoir.

“By misleading key decision makers about progress of the permitting process, Mr. Craig continued billing and collecting legal and consulting fees for the reservoir project,” the report stated. 

“Mr. Craig became inextricably involved in a long-running project where he should have known and should have advised county leaders and taxpayers that the project would not and could not be approved, and was destined for failure, as a result of his actions or lack of timely action with regulators. 

“Because Craig provided a false sense of hope to county leaders and taxpayers, they relied on his supposed expertise and legal advice, that he was an advocate for the county's best interest, and thus, prolonged his term as county attorney. 

“lnstead, he continued wasting taxpayer funds for his own benefit and the benefit of his colleagues and family members.”

It also alleged Craig “had continual, ongoing knowledge that the reservoir project would not be permitted” but continued to lead the county to pay “excessive prices for properties.” 

“ln spite of this knowledge and concealed by his misrepresentations and misleading, deceptive statements” Craig facilitated land acquisition transactions “by purchasing overpriced properties, resulting in at least $25 million of taxpayer losses.”