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Hall County tax assessors controversy: Before accusations came praise

Cantrell says recommendation made for ‘job security'

POSTED: May 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

One of two accusers of Hall County Board of Tax Assessors Chairman Emory Martin wrote a glowing recommendation for Martin’s reappointment in 2003, one of the years in which Martin is accused of financial improprieties.

James Cantrell, the former chief real estate appraiser for the tax assessors’ office, said the memo addressed to the Hall County Board of Commissioners was written under duress after Martin asked him for a recommendation.

But Steven Gilliam, the attorney hired by Hall County to represent the tax assessors board in a probe over per diem payments to board members, said the Dec. 22, 2003, memo calls Cantrell’s credibility into question.

"I have never seen a more glowing recommendation for someone to be reappointed," Gilliam said.

Gilliam said that while Cantrell contends that the board acted improperly in 2003 and years prior, "here is a memorandum he wrote in 2003 that totally contradicts his current position. I think it speaks for itself."

Cantrell and former Chief Personal Property Appraiser Lyman Martin came forward in February with allegations that Emory Martin collected $100 per diems for more than 400 days in which he was not eligible to be paid, with the total amount exceeding $40,000 throughout several years. They also accused Board of Tax Assessors members William Vaughan and Terrell Gaines of improperly billing the county for work on holidays.

Gilliam said the board members did nothing wrong and followed an established policy that permitted them to be paid on any day in which they had dealings with citizens about tax assessor business, whether it was individually or as a board.

Cantrell’s 2003 memo to Hall County commissioners said Emory Martin "served the taxpayers of Hall County fairly and impartially."

Cantrell wrote that Emory Martin "is always available to talk to taxpayers, on the phone or in person, regardless of the day or time."

"Emory’s commitment to serve Hall County’s citizens with honesty and integrity makes him an asset to the county as a whole," Cantrell wrote.

Cantrell, who worked for the tax assessors office for 24 years, retired the year after the memo was written.

In an interview Tuesday, Cantrell said he was forced out of the office and that he wrote the recommendation because Emory Martin called him and asked for help in getting reappointed to another six-year term. Cantrell said he wrote the memo despite having earlier confronted Emory Martin about the per diem billing that he felt was wrong.

"I was really afraid that if I didn’t and he did get reappointed he was going to be after me," Cantrell said. "In the end, that’s what happened.

"I did it for job security," Cantrell said. "I did the best I could to see he got reappointed because he asked me to."

Cantrell said in hindsight he would not have written the memo.

"They can dig up some more letters along that line," Cantrell said. "It doesn’t change the fact that I believe he cheated the county all those days."

Gilliam said the allegations made by Cantrell and Lyman Martin have been "devastating" to his clients.

"They have been accused by these two people they worked with very closely, and they don’t know why they’re being singled out," Gilliam said.

Gilliam, who was hired by Hall County to represent the Board of Tax Assessors, said Emory Martin is steadfast that he did nothing wrong.

"Every time I’ve met with him, he says, ‘I have done the best job I could for the taxpayers of Hall County.’ Now I find in this memo from 2003 where James Cantrell says the same thing."

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into the allegations and will present its findings to Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh. Emory Martin has agreed to take a leave of absence from the board within 30 days of the submission of the county tax digest until the probe is completed.

Gilliam said he provided Darragh and the GBI with a copy of the memo Friday after he learned of its existence.



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