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GBI takes over tax assessors probe

DA requested agency to look into per diem payment issues

POSTED: May 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has been requested to conduct an investigation into whether there was criminal wrongdoing by the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors in the billing of per diem payments by board members, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The board’s attorney, meanwhile, said he expected no criminal charges to come from the probe.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said he met with GBI agents April 24 to discuss the case.

"I have referred it to the GBI for them to conduct a complete investigation," Darragh said.

Darragh has not recused himself from the case, and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office is not currently involved, though the office was consulted.

Two former employees of the tax assessors’ office, longtime appraisers James Cantrell and Lyman Martin, first leveled accusations against board Chairman Emory L. Martin Jr. in March. Cantrell and Lyman Martin hired attorney Ashley Bell to help them go public with allegations that Emory Martin put down for at least 477 days of work at $100 per day in violation of the board’s rules. Bell later said that board members William Gaines and Terrell Vaughan also violated policy by being paid for work on county holidays.

Last month, Emory Martin agreed to take a leave of absence within 30 days of the submission of this year’s tax digest until the investigation is completed.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Mike Ayers said the agency was requested to look into "issues of recording of time and billing of county government for services."

"We have just begun preliminary inquiries into the issues at hand, and no doubt it will be some time before we are through with the investigation," Ayers said. The GBI will turn its findings over to Darragh, he said.

Gainesville attorney Steven Gilliam, who is representing the board, said the per diem payments were not in violation of board rules, calling the practice "perfectly legal."

He said the board’s policy allowed members to charge the county for days when they met with private citizens to discuss tax assessor business individually, regardless of whether they met together as a board.

"I’ve met with the GBI agent and explained to him the board’s position on everything, so I don’t expect any criminal indictments," Gilliam said. "They have not committed a crime."

Gilliam could not say whether the board members would give individual interviews to the GBI.

"I’m speaking for the board. What they do individually is up to them," Gilliam said.



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