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Hall DA speaks to 2 accusers

POSTED: March 26, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Hall County's district attorney continues to look into allegations of financial improprieties by the county board of tax assessors as one county commissioner publicly called this week for a full investigation in light of accusations made by two retired county employees.

District Attorney Lee Darragh has spoken with Lyman Martin and James Cantrell, two former longtime chief appraisers for the Hall County Tax Assessors Office. The two came forward with allegations against the three-man board of padded per diem time sheets, improper holiday pay and at least one improper assessment, according to their attorney, Ashley Bell.

This week, Bell turned over what he says is evidence that one owner of a commercial property was given a preferential and improper school tax exemption. Bell said when the discrepancy was brought to the attention of the board by Cantrell in 2001, the board told him to leave the assessment as it was.

Martin and Cantrell, each with more than 20 years in the office, have previously said the chairman of the board of tax assessors, Emory Martin Jr., ignored board policy and put in for a per diem pay of $100 per day on days when other board members did not meet.

Bell said this week that he has found 661 instances from 1996 to 2005 of Emory Martin Jr. collecting pay for days when he worked alone. Board policy states members should only be paid when at least two members are present, according to Bell.

Emory Martin, who is no relation to Lyman Martin, has said he was paid whenever he came to the office to do county business.

Emory Martin said he discontinued a policy of giving tax assessors office employees paid time off for their birthdays after learning it was against county policy.

Reached Friday, Emory Martin declined to comment, referring questions to Steven Gilliam, the attorney he said had been retained by the county to represent the board of tax assessors. Gilliam was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment. Emory Martin said Gilliam had spoken with Darragh.

Darragh would say little about the investigation, including whether he would recuse himself and turn the matter over the Georgia Attorney General's Office. "I'm leaving all options, including that one, open," Darragh said.

Commissioners said in a Monday work session that they would wait for an official report from Darragh on the matter.

Darragh said Friday that "no one from the commissioners' office has sought to give me any direction in regards to the material I've received," but did not rule out making a report.

"My investigation into the matter continues," Darragh said. "I really can't speak to what I have done or what I will be doing. I'll be looking at the matter objectively."

Hall County Commissioner Bobby Banks said Friday he had spoken with officials with the Georgia Department of Revenue, which could conduct a performance review of the tax assessors office, and was told to "wait until the district attorney looks at it."

"What I'm mainly concerned with is whether there's any wrongdoing in assessments," Banks said.
"We're going to wait until the district attorney comes back with his findings before we proceed," Banks said. "If it's criminal, he'll pursue it. If it's just ethical, we'll have to figure out the best course of action."

Bell said his clients want to see an outside performance review of the board by the state department of revenue.

"Other counties have done it in the past," Bell said. "And in times where there's been a dereliction of duty on the part of the board of assessors, those reviews have found it and have subsequently been a cause for removal."

"I'm confident that there will be some positive steps made," Bell said. "We just want to make sure the steps are in-depth and cover all the issues."



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