2017-11-08 / Front Page

Mayor repays travel expenses, returns vehicle and credit cards

By DIANA ROYAL

Waynesboro Mayor Greg Carswell has reimbursed the city for $4,337.99 after being called out for filing a falsified travel itinerary and using a city vehicle and credit card for unauthorized purposes. In advance of Monday night’s city council meeting, Carswell turned over the vehicle and credit card to city manager Jerry Coalson. Coalson had recently completed an investigation, ordered by the council, into Carswell’s travel and spending activities.

A packed council chamber heard Coalson and city attorney Chris Dube list violations of state law, city ordinances and city policies committed by Carswell since he assumed office in May of this year.

At the outset of the meeting, Carswell read a letter in which he apologized for the “distraction” and offered to repay $2,601.94 and said, “All other trips, meetings or anything I must attend will be paid out of my own pocket.”

Councilwoman Alberta Anderson moved that council accept Coalson’s report as information only and take no action, but the motion died as Dube went through the list of violations against state law, city codes and policies as well as the city charter.

“Well I’m glad you did your homework,” Anderson responded to Dube, stating that she was sorry the incidents had occurred but also glad because now all city employees will know what they can and cannot do.

Dube explained that the mayor’s Philadelphia trip, specifically, was an attempt to deceive. “No city employee has submitted a fake itinerary for a $2,000 trip before,” he said.

Councilman James “ Chick” Jones said he thought everything was a major misunderstanding and that if he goes to Atlanta and gives out his business card, that’s considered city business.

No explanations were offered and no questions from council members followed Coalson’s report. Councilman Bill Tinley moved to accept the mayor’s offer to return the car, credit cards and pay for the unauthorized purchases as long as the reimbursement amount was changed to the amount recommended in Coalson’s report.

By a 5-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Brenda Lewis opposed, the council agreed to the motion. There was no reference in the motion to any possible future criminal prosecution of Carswell for the state and local code violations.

Immediately following the show of hands, councilman Willie Williams rescinded his vote, stating to the mayor, “You should have known better. The taxpayers’ money should be better spent.”

Just before Monday’s meeting began, Lewis leaned over to converse with the mayor, then got up from her seat, approached the city attorney and called over Waynesboro Police Chief Augustus Palmer. When the mayor joined in, the conversation appeared to get heated. A woman (later identified as the mayor’s sister) was then asked to leave. Lewis said the woman “mouthed” the words “nasty bitch” to her and that she was not going to be intimidated and wanted the woman removed from the room.

The report detailing the mayor’s expenditures and vehicle usage was issued last Friday and listed seven recommended “options to consider,” including the option to forward the report to the FBI’s field office in Augusta.

Coalson’s findings were broken down into three categories: travel expenses surrounding a trip to Philadelphia in July and an unknown trip last month, credit card usage for entertaining a gospel singer and vehicle usage.

Carswell told The True Citizen the Philadelphia trip, which cost the city more than $2,000, was to visit a funhouse business owner who was interested in the possibility of opening in Waynesboro and that he’d met with the man twice during the trip: once while the business was closed and again during peak hours. He also said the man, who’d asked the mayor for anonymity, planned to visit Waynesboro in 2018. The itinerary for the trip, which Carswell provided, shows 10 hours spent with Mark Legenstein of Go ‘N Bananas Family Fun Center. Coalson states in his report that he spoke to Legenstein over the phone and that while the man does have plans for expansion, there is no consideration to locate to or even visit Waynesboro at this time. Toll receipts and travel times indicate the mayor was at the fun center less than one hour and 15 minutes during the five-night stay. According to the report, Carswell later stated in a recent email he’d visited the fun center only once.

Another concern mentioned was the location of the mayor’s hotel, which the report said “continues to show his intent” for the trip: The hotel was approximately 67 miles from the fun center and less than 13 miles from a church where Carswell attended a fellowship event the same week (photos from his attendance at the event were provided). The annual, pre-planned event is one Carswell attended in 2015 and 2016 as well.

Where the gospel singer luncheon is concerned, the findings say this event was also not cityrelated. Coalson’s report states the mayor had asked him to rent a vehicle so he could show the “VIP” singer around Waynesboro but that the van he acquired from a local business was “too big.” The mayor, instead, rented a Dodge Durango from Augusta and returned it the following day with approximately 500 miles on it. Carswell told The True Citizen, “When the car was checked in, the lady put in a number for the mileage and she didn’t even go to check it. I think she did it [because] she was from Waynesboro and just trusted me I guess.” While Coalson and some city council members were invited to a dinner with the singer, held at Carswell’s church, Coalson says it was not a city-related meeting.

The total cost of the luncheon for the singer, who was later identified as Dottie Peoples, was just shy of $500 and included 75 pieces of fried chicken, ham and items to make side dishes and desserts. Coalson says the receipts reference “apartments,” but that “no reference or discussions have occurred concerning the possibility of Dottie Peoples building or investing in Waynesboro.”

He also says, following the Philadelphia trip, “the Mayor did not provide me or any other member of the City Council with any proposal, letter of intent, business portfolio, prospectus, business plan or even a business card” from the fun center visit.

Travel expenses for an unknown trip from Oct. 8-12, were charged to the city’s credit card and total $111. According to the report, the mayor says someone else funded the trip, in which other officials from the Southeast were in attendance, and the donor would be refunding baggage claim and airport parking fees he charged to the city. “She told me they had already mailed the check … they paid for everything, hotel, food and flight,” the mayor said in an email to Coalson.

Coalson went on to state he’d spoken with the county’s development authority director and that she was unaware of any sort of regional meeting or industry prospect.

During Monday’s meeting, Coalson said the details of this trip had still not been made known and that if it were in fact city business, the mayor is “absolutely responsible for disclosing that information.”

Upon reviewing Carswell’s GPS log on the city vehicle issued to him in May, Coalson reports the mayor “is using the vehicle for an extremely large amount of personal activity to include trips that appear to be to the movies, for haircuts, shopping … to visit friends and family throughout the CSRA, to doctors’ appointments … dental appointments … to physical therapy appointments … to a large number of churches … some in neighboring counties. The data shows more church visits than could be considered as official city business.”

A five-page table lists suspected personal use of the vehicle, and the report says many other trips were omitted if they were possibly city-related.

The vehicle issued to the mayor shows a total of 6,413 driven miles from June 13 to Oct. 16, which is the most miles driven on any vehicle in the city’s fleet, including police cruisers. Additionally, the car leads the city with the most speeding violations over the last 90-day period.

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