Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell are the subject of an ethics complaint filed Wednesday with Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office by a group of county residents.
At issue in the complaint is whether Powell and Oliver violated state ethics laws through their involvement in a personal business venture while serving on the commission.
The group of residents, headed by Joe Schuebert of Clermont, turned over a packet of documents to the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon. The packet included minutes from commission meetings, property deeds and excerpts of articles from The Times. It also included a petition signed by about 180 Hall County residents.
The governor’s office has received the documents, but has not had time to review them, said spokesman Chris Schrimpf. No timetable has been established, but according to the process set up in Georgia law, the governor or a designated staff member will determine whether to forward the complaint to an administrative law judge.
According to the complaint, the two commissioners benefited financially from an attempt to buy a piece of property from Regions Bank adjacent to a proposed hotel/office complex called Gainesville City Center in Midtown in 2009. One of the City Center’s developers is Wendell Starke.
At about the same time, the complaint alleges, another of Starke’s company, Cool Springs LLC, agreed to give Hall County 85 acres on Cool Springs Road to build a park. In exchange for the land, Hall County agreed to build a road and utilities to adjacent property also owned by Starke’s company.
Although an agreement has been reached for Cool Springs LLC to donate the park property, the company currently still owns it.
“The county is still in the process of acquiring this property and is awaiting a new survey due to correction of the property lines,” County Administrator Charley Nix said in a March 30 memo included in the complaint.
Powell said the allegations are “totally without merit and have no factual basis.”
He believes the request is an attempt to lash out at the commissioners for voting to build the North Hall library at Nopone Road rather than in the town of Clermont.
“It’s a nuisance from a disgruntled, immature constituent,” Powell said. “I think they are acting like kids that someone took their toys away from them.”
Powell said he believes the request is a waste of the governor’s time.
Oliver wouldn’t comment on the complaint.
But Schuebert said he looks at the investigation as a benefit for both commissioners.
“This is your opportunity to be able to tell the citizens of Hall County that this was not unethical,” Schuebert said. “You have a neutral third party coming in and saying, yes, we agree, or no, we don’t agree.”
Bert Brantley, another Perdue spokesman, said the method for the investigation, described in Georgia Code 45-10-4, is rarely used.
“When those things are filed we take a look at them, look at the evidence and then determine whether to forward it over to the administrative law judge,” Brantley said. “The governor doesn’t make the decision. The governor only decides whether to refer it or not.”
If the complaint is referred to a judge and if the judge determines the charges are true, the governor can remove the elected officials from office, Brantley said.
Brantley said the last time the governor’s office removed officials from office as a result of an investigation was in 2008, when Perdue removed Clayton County school board members after the school system lost its accreditation.
“Certainly if you look at how rarely it’s happened over the years ... it is generally reserved for the most serious of issues,” Brantley said.
In October 2008, Oliver, Powell and county bond attorney Tread Syfan formed a limited liability corporation called City View Investments and were under contract to purchase the Regions Bank Operations Center.
City View became entangled in a legal argument when Regions Bank and the Gainesville City Center, developers of a high-rise hotel and office complex for Gainesville’s Midtown redevelopment project, went to court to determine the validity of an easement that allowed access to the Regions Operations Center through property owned by Gainesville City Center.
At the time, Oliver said City View Investments had no interest in purchasing the bank property without the easements.
The suit was settled in June 2009 with an arrangement for Gainesville City Center to buy City View’s contract to acquire the Regions Operations Center.
The settlement came several days after the county agreed to the Cool Springs land deal, according to the complaint.
In April 2009, Hall County resident Douglas Aiken filed a similar ethics complaint against Oliver and Powell with the State Ethics Commission. Aiken complained that Powell and Oliver did not disclose their personal business interests and relationship with Syfan during a March 26 vote.
The ethics commission rejected the complaint a few days later, saying it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter.