On Oct. 18, 2015, the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to bring a halt to the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir project, under way since 2000.
The vote suspended all work on the county’s 1,242-acre water supply project, and drew the line at expenditures on the project at around $25 million.
The failed project was a costly one to Newton County, and recently came under examination by forensic auditor David Sawyer of Frazier and Deeter CPAs and Advisors, an accountant hired to look into the county’s finances. In looking into the Bear Creek Reservoir project, Sawyer’s gaze settled on former county attorney Tommy Craig.
During Craig’s tenure as county attorney and its water consultant, more than $25 million was approved by commissioners and spent on land purchases, mitigation, studies and repeated attempts at procuring a permit to build the reservoir. Those attempts were denied by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Craig’s work on Bear Creek, Sawyer said, “was financially detrimental to the taxpayers of Newton County. Sawyer also suggested fraud on the part of Craig, referencing West’s Encyclopedia’s definition of the word, and claiming Newton County’s former attorney, misrepresented the county’s need for another reservoir, used his position as attorney and water consultant to benefit himself, deceived the county’s decision makers and caused financial damage.
“We recommend that further investigative steps be performed by law enforcement authorities, to determine whether or not criminal activity has occurred,” Sawyer’s report said.
Craig, however, said the audit was not meant to curb spending by the board.
“The Board has carried out this investigation as part of a Board scheme intended to destroy my life and my career, and hurt not only me but my wonderful wife and children,” Craig said in a written statement sent to The Covington News. “David Sawyer lacks impartiality and objectivity.”
Sawyer cited several real estate transaction documents, news articles, letters from authorities, financial data provided by the Newton County Finance Department and other documentation such as invoices and closing documents in providing his accounting analysis. Craig was not interviewed for the accounting report.
In that analysis he detailed what he said were 16 false, misleading statements or misrepresentation of facts to the BOC or taxpayers from 2008 to 2015.
“Because of his fiduciary role as county attorney, Newton County Commissioners and taxpayers relied on statements and guidance provided by Tommy Craig to their own financial detriment and harm” Sawyer reported.
Sawyer also claimed a conflict of interest of Craig serving both as the county’s attorney and water consultant. This is something that was resolved when the BOC went against Craig’s recommendations and stopped the reservoir project. Around a month later, the BOC voted to move away from Craig, who had served as county attorney for 40 years, and hired Jarrard and Davis.
“Commissioner [Levie] Maddox and I were the two votes keeping him in the county attorney position until last fall,” District 1 Commission John Douglas said. “It got to the point where we realized we couldn’t keep doing that. That’s why we changed our votes and voted to release Tommy and bring in the new firm. In hindsight that was a good move on our part. It appears there was a lot of things going on there for a number of years, before we even got on the board.”
Some of the things that were going on in Craig’s tenure, according to Sawyer, were persistent claims that the county should continue with the project despite correspondences in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015 that the permitting process had problems.
Craig refutes that the reservoir was, and is needed and cited more than 28 years of permitting experience on 11 reservoir projects, including Newton County’s Lake Varner.
“A careful review of the 112-page report reveals David Sawyer and his staff, and, to the extent she reviewed his work, the County Attorney, are breathtakingly incompent (sic) to review the Bear Creek water supply project,” Craig said in his statement.
While Sawyer hasn’t worked or been a resident of Newton County, commissioners Douglas and Nancy Schulz had, and both, who voted to stop the project, said they had little knowledge of some of the items detailed in Sawyer’s report.
“We had hunches,” Schulz, District 3 commissioner said. “But Mr. Craig kept all the documents.”
Among the documents kept at the office of W.T. Craig Law Firm were transaction documents of mitigation land purchased by the county. Sawyer pointed to several land purchases that were “questionable and wasteful”.
Included in a group of 12 properties was Gaithers Plantation, which was purchased in 1995, before the permitting process took shape, for $4,100,000, or $1,863 an acre.
“The property was previously owned by Henry Lassiter, who died on May 9, 1994 in Thailand and was a known associate of Tommy Craig,” Sawyer said in his report.
Craig said the property was purchased at the behest of former Chair Davis Morgan.
“Davis negotiated the purchase price and the Board of Commissioners voted to approve it,” Craig said in his statement. “The Board’s decision to purchase Gaither Plantation was driven by its desire to protect the historic plantation from falling into the hands of a developer who might subdivide it into small building lots, and to provide a place for public recreation, weddings, etc.
“Sawyer’s decision to charge me with a wasting $6,611,977 for the County’s ownership of Gaither Plantation, clearly shows he performed no thorough investigation of the facts. To my way of thinking, any stranger who would attempt to carry out an investigation in a county he is unfamiliar with without paying a personal visit to local citizens with knowledge of the facts, sorely lacks what folks used to call common, ordinary horse sense.”
Sawyer’s report also dug into the purchase of three tracts on the Spears Farm. Sawyer states that “Under Tommy Craig’s direct supervision , the purchase of these properties cost Newton County taxpayers not only cash flow for the purchase in the amount of $1,415,475, but also foregone property tax revenue of approximately $68,072.”
Earlier this year Douglas declared the Bear Creek project “dead” and Craig no longer conducts business with the BOC. As to what will be done with properties such as Gaither Plantation and the Spears Farm, Douglas said the county’s future board may have to decide that. He also said the new board can use Sawyer’s document as a starting point.
“I think it’s very important that the board set the precedent right now that it is not going to tolerate malfeasance,” Douglas said. “If there is malfeasance, they’re not going to tolerate it with trust of the people and the money they have to hand over to the government every year. Now is the time to get it cleaned up. If there is a problem now that we opened the door, this is time to clean it up and set an example and let people know we’re serious about this.”