Former Newton County Fire Services Chief Kevin O’Brien served the residents of this county for eight years. He led the county’s fire department and steered Newton residents to safety.
On Thursday, Judge Horace Johnson, Jr. sentenced O’Brien to 20 years’ probation, including one year in prison, for illegally using his purchasing card, buying items with taxpayer money that benefited himself and his family.
The fencing, ceiling fans, tools, screen doors, kitchen cabinets, hammock, camping equipment and more did not go to help make life easier for those who were responsible for keeping the residents of this county safe.
No, the $16,991 items did not show up in fire houses across the county, according to District Attorney Layla Zon. They showed up at O’Brien’s house. “He was stealing, not to put bread on the table, but for luxury items,” Zon said during the sentencing.
That theft was not just a violation of the law; it was a violation of the public’s trust in its leaders.
Haven’t we had enough of that?
This county has seen its share of money being spent without adequate sources of revenue and systems of accountability in place. We have heard from officials who said they would do things a certain way and, in the end, don’t follow through with their promises.
Nationally, some people feel they can no longer trust law enforcement. We have two presidential candidates that some say should be on Comedy Central rather than CNN or Fox News.
What can be done to put an end to the mistrust?
Judge Johnson took a step for us in that direction locally.
Johnson, who has been a helping hand to many in this community, stuck to what people can trust in – the rule of law. Because, in the end, people that make bad decisions must pay the consequences.
“Often times the court seeks to judge whether someone’s a good or bad person,” Johnson said when rendering his verdict. “My job is to treat people in the same situation alike.”
We sincerely hope that O’Brien’s consequences are a wake-up call to those making similar bad decisions. One man will pay for his misdeeds. Others would be foolish not to learn from them.
It is time for us all to do the same.
None of us are more entitled to rewards or recognition than our peers. None of us are above reproach or immune to temptation. None of us are so perfect that we don’t make mistakes in judgement.
O’Brien worked hard to climb the ranks of the fire services and, with that, received more responsibility and more compensation. However, no one works hard enough to the point where they don’t have to do the right thing.
It seems, to us, that too many people nowadays fail to do the right thing. The right thing to do is often extremely difficult, might cause unrest or discomfort for some. The right thing will rarely make the evening news or the trending social media. The right thing to do is usually not flashy and might not be very popular.
The right thing to do is not always easy, pretty, or noteworthy.
After all, earning someone’s trust is one of the hardest things to do. But the two go hand-in-hand.
Trust is something too many of us have lost. We have lost trust in our elected officials, in our community leaders, in our fellow man. And in doing so, we lose much of what we love about community.
It’s time we get back to doing what is hard — what is right. Because doing the right thing is worth more than getting ahead or getting just what’s yours.
That is something too many have lost.
It is something that needs to now be earned back by our county officials because of one person’s desire to take the easy route.
We hope our elected officials learned a lesson that purchasing cards are not a personal bonus bestowed upon them by taxpayers. Trust is a privilege that must be earned. Stop breaking that trust. It is something we will demand from now on.
Doing what is right is worth elected officials earning back the trust of the citizens they represent, community leaders truly working for the community, and neighbors helping and supporting each other.
It is worth the respect of your neighbors, friends and countrymen.
Each day brings new opportunities to earn that trust and bestow that respect. Let’s start today to build both of those things back, in Newton County, in this place we call home.