When Emory Martin resigned from the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors last month, some county officials considered a long-simmering controversy surrounding financial improprieties, per diems and padded time sheets over and done with.
But a citizens’ group has refused to let the issue go until it sees the resignation of two other board members who served with Martin.
Martin was accused of taking $60,000 in pay he didn’t earn by putting down for days when he did not work, including holidays when county offices were closed. Following an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, District Attorney Lee Darragh declined to prosecute Martin, but added in a letter to Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver that his decision was “not to say that the actions of Emory Martin as revealed by the investigation were not of highly questionable ethics and an abuse of his authority.”
A grassroots watchdog group argues that the ethical lapses were not confined to Martin, but were shared by board members Terrell Gaines and William Vaughan.
In an advertisement paid for by Hall County Citizens for Efficient Government and published last week in The Times, the group cites a GBI investigative report in calling for Gaines and Vaughan to step down.
The report, obtained by the group through an open records request and provided to The Times, states that Gaines and Vaughan told GBI agent Brian Whidby they never completed a time sheet since joining the board and were unaware they were being paid holiday pay.
A person interviewed by the GBI whose name was redacted from the report told the agent that Vaughan said he knew Martin was checking off days for $100 per-diems when a quorum was not present. Vaughan, in an interview with the GBI, denied ever saying that.
Paul Barnes, a member of the watchdog group, said both members should return their holiday pay. He also alleges Vaughan and Gaines committed misdemeanors by failing to take the oath of office in a timely fashion after being reappointed by the Hall County Board of Commissioners.
Barnes also believes Vaughan should step down to due to health issues that Vaughan disclosed to the GBI.
“I don’t believe people are going to have much confidence in that tax assessors office as long as those two are in there,” Barnes said Friday.
Gaines, who has served on the board since 1993 and has three years remaining on his current six-year term, defended his service on the board when reached Friday.
Gaines said when serving consecutive terms, a board member is not required to take the oath of office immediately at the beginning of the next term.
He said he was unaware he was being paid for working on holidays, but said that holiday pay would have been for other, legitimate days when he did county business.
The board adopted a policy of receiving per-diem pay for each meeting with taxpayers, one that has since been rescinded by the county commission.
“If I worked three days or four days and somebody checked one of those days as a holiday, I still worked those days and I earned that pay,” Gaines said.
Gaines concedes that the board was tarnished by the controversy.
“I think the whole thing reflected poorly on us, yes,” Gaines said. But he does not believe it merits his resignation.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong, and I certainly don’t feel I need to resign,” Gaines said.
“People who know me, they know what kind of person I am. Some other people I couldn’t convince one way or the other.”
Vaughan did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Ashley Bell, the attorney and county commissioner-elect who first brought the pay controversy to the public’s attention, said it would be better if the board started with a clean slate in 2009. The Hall County Commission has expanded the board membership to five people and made three new appointments since the controversy broke.
“I think come January, the county would be well-served with an entirely new board of tax assessors,” Bell said, citing the refusal by Gaines and Vaughan to return per-diem pay they made on at least a dozen holidays when county offices were closed.
“This won’t go away, you won’t have the full public trust back until we can have an entirely new board,” Bell said.
Barnes, who vows to attend and monitor every public meeting of the tax assessor board, said he won’t rest until there is complete turnover on the board.
“We’re going to stay on them from now on,” Barnes said. “We’re not going to let up.”