An investigation into Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver using county money to pay a consulting company owned by a former Gainesville city manager could be wrapped up by late September, officials said.
But a second investigation, this one by the governor’s office into allegations Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell violated ethics laws by benefiting personally from county business, is still open-ended, the governor’s office said.
Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the office has not decided if it will refer the complaint, filed by county residents, to an administrative law judge.
Officials involved in both investigations say they are moving slowly due largely to busy schedules and short staffs.
In March, the county commission asked District Attorney Lee Darragh to investigate county operations, a move that was spurred by consulting payments made by Oliver to Carlyle Cox’s company, Omega Consulting.
Darragh referred the matter to Richard A. Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia is an administrative arm for district attorneys that also has a legal team to provide support in special circumstances.
Malone said his investigation will likely be heard by a grand jury in late September or early October.
“I have done some discussion with some of the witnesses and we’re gathering information, and it’s likely we’re going to take it to the grand jury to view it because that’s the body in government that’s allowed to supervise these types of things,” Malone said.
Malone said he believes having a grand jury hear the case will be the best way to get information it to the public. It is up to the grand jury to make a determination of what to do with the information, Malone said.
“There’s two ways the grand jury works. One is that when you present a crime to them, they decide whether or not to charge someone with a crime,” Malone said. “But they also have the authority to review the operation of county government and if there are things that are not in compliance with the law or are not in compliance with what they believe good business practices should dictate, they have the right to do presentments and suggest this to the commissioners and then have those published.”
Malone did not say whether he would present evidence of a crime to the grand jury.
“Anytime you get local governments involved under some sort of investigation at all, a lot of rumors start and lot of discussion gets going about what could be and not exactly what it is,” Malone said. “Our whole purpose for the grand jury is to clear the air and let them decide what’s best for Hall County.”
In March, Oliver announced the county had been paying Cox, a Hall County library board member and former Gainesville city manager, since 2006 for consulting services, specifically on water and sewer projects.
An open records request by The Times showed Cox had received $75,000 since February 2006, but had produced no correspondence or reports.
In addition to the investigation, the commission also voted to conduct a financial audit of all five commissioners, County Administrator Charley Nix and former administrator Jim Shuler.
On the second investigation, Brantley said the governor’s office is juggling a number of other important matters and is trying to balance this request against other needs of the governor’s office.
“It’s just going to take us some time to look at it and determine if referral is the right move or not,” Brantley said. “There’s a lot of other issues going on obviously and so to be able to put in the time and effort needed is tough. It’s hard to do that. We’re trying to balance all the things that are going on out there. We certainly take these things seriously and want to make sure we’re being very judicious.”
Georgia Code 45-10-4 allows the governor to analyze a complaint and make a referral to an administrative law judge.
If the complaint is referred to a judge and if the judge determines the charges are true, the governor can remove an elected official from office.
Brantley said this code section is very rarely used.
“We’ve only had a couple of these during the governor’s term,” Brantley said. “Local control is something the governor has always been very cognizant of, and the power of the ballot box is something he respects tremendously, and so it would only be in the most rare of circumstances that this kind of a code section, this kind of process, that he would look at and refer a case.”
Brantley said in past cases, the governors office has moved complaints more swiftly.
For example, in 2008, Perdue removed Clayton County School Board members after the school system lost its accreditation.
“It happened a lot more quickly because we had previous knowledge of the situation and there was this outside entity that had come in and was looking into the situation, just a lot of facts moving in that direction,” Brantley said.
He said the governor’s office is still looking into the Hall County complaint, but he is not sure when a decision will be reached.
“Whether this situation meets that standard, I don’t know yet. But certainly we would only use this in very, very limited circumstances because it has the potential to greatly impact local communities and we would be very judicious about using this process,” Brantley said.
The second investigation was sparked in April by Hall County residents who filed an ethics complaint with Perdue’s office against Oliver and Powell, alleging that the two violated state ethics laws through their involvement in a personal business venture while serving on the commission.
According to the complaint filed with the governor’s office, 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.
The complaint alleges another of the City Center developers’ companies, Cool Springs LLC, is tied to the deal after it agreed to give Hall County 85 acres on Cool Springs Road to build a park at about the same time.