Former Newton County Fire Services Chief Kevin O’Brien stood with his attorney Steven M. Frey, of The Frey Law Firm, and withdrew his not guilty plea and pled guilty to four counts of theft by taking by a government employee in Newton County Superior Court on Thursday.
O’Brien had been indicted by a Grand Jury in January on charges involving the illegal use of a county purchasing card. According to Newton County District Attorney Layla 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, Zon told Judge Horace J. Johnson.
A search warrant was then issued for O’Brien’s residence. Zon told the judge that the district attorney’s office conservatively estimates that O’Brien had used the P-card for $16,991.70 for personal use. While some of the items could be retrieved, others, like the fencing, could not, Zon said.
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.
In June, O’Brien had pled not guilty before Judge Johnson and requested a trial by jury. On Thursday, he withdrew the plea and waived his rights to a trial or to withdraw his guilty plea.
“This works for everyone, I think,” Johnson said. He then told O’Brien, “You leave here different then you arrived, having pled guilty to felony charges.”
O’Brien said he understood.
Sentencing has been set for Oct. 6. Each of the four felony counts carries up to 15 years in prison.
Zon said the Newton County Sheriff's Office had received an anonymous tip on May 12, 2015, 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, 2015, Zon said, the District Attorney's office received similar information from a source concerned about the fire chief's possible misuse of county funds. She formally requested GBI's assistance in investigating the matter on June 3, 2015, and received the completed investigation from the state agency on Oct. 9, 2015.
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.