County, sheriff fight over $425,000



Sheriff Alfonzo Williams has taken his budget fight with the Burke County Commission to a new level by refusing to turn over $425,000 in grant funds given to his department last year.

Instead, those funds have flowed in and out of accounts controlled by Williams himself since last fall, with no public oversight or accounting. Commissioners have asked the sheriff to turn over those funds so the county can budget them to the Burke County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) and properly account for their use. As of this week, Williams has so far refused.

A May 31 letter to Williams from the commissioners stated the board had “received the opinion that these funds should have been…run through the appropriation process… like other revenues to the County. Based on this advice we…respectfully request that you turn over $425,000 in grant funds…without delay.” That letter was signed by all the commissioners except Lucious Abrams.

In his response to Chairman Terri Lodge Kelly, Williams stated that based on his own legal consultation, he believed the county was not involved in the grants and had no say over how those funds were spent. “To this end,” his letter read, “we will not relinquish any funds to the county government.”

According to county documents and emails reviewed by The True Citizen, officials first became aware of the grant funds back in April, after the sheriff made reference to them during a work session with the commission on April 14. Up until that point, the commission and the county manager’s office had believed those grants had not been renewed for the 2022 fiscal year. That belief was based on numerous emails with Williams and his staff as well as public statements by the sheriff, frustrated by the need for such outside funding.

By April 19, county officials had confirmed the BCSO had received two grants totaling $425,000. The first, in the amount of $50,000, was provided thru an agreement with the Waynesboro Housing Authority. That agreement, dated Aug. 18, 2021, laid out specific services to be provided by the BCSO on Housing Authority properties in Waynesboro.

According to Burke County Finance Director Michael Wiseman, the BCSO had previously received this grant in 2017 and in the 2019 thru 2021 fiscal years. In each of those years, the funds had been received by the county and appropriated through the budget process to the sheriff’s office.

In a Dec. 14, 2021, email to BCSO Budget Analyst Austin Miettunen, County Manager Merv Waldrop asked when the county would be receiving the Housing Authority grant for the upcoming year.

Miettunen responded, “I have no timetable on the funds being made available.”

According to documents provided by the county, however, the $50,000 had been deposited into a BCSO account at First National Bank of Waynesboro two months prior on Sept. 17, 2021.

Documents also show the $ 375,000 “ Vogtle Safety Grant” was handled in the same manner. Three deposits of $125,000 each were made into the BCSO account between Oct. 8 and Nov. 15, 2021.

An agreement signed by the sheriff and Glen E. Chick, Executive Vice President for Plant Vogtle units 3 & 4, and dated Oct. 4, 2021, lays out a list of services to be provided by the BCSO over the next 18 months in exchange for the funding. Those services include increased traffic enforcement and daily patrols in and around Plant Vogtle.

Multiple emails sent in early 2022 between county staff, the commissioners, Williams and BCSO staff discuss the 2021 Vogtle grant running out in mid-February and question how to continue paying four deputy positions being funded through that year’s grant. Williams nor his staff appear to have ever alerted county officials that his office had received the money months before.

Beyond the dispute over who should hold those funds are questions about how Williams has spent that money since last year. At the county’s request, Williams turned over bank statements for the accounts to the county’s independent auditing firm, Lanier, Deal & Proctor, CPAs, in Statesboro, for September 2021 through April 30, 2022. Williams has turned down multiple requests by both the county and the auditor for copies of additional records. Williams has stated he will allow those documents to be viewed at the BCSO only.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Wiseman said the county had received the May 2022 bank statements that morning and that he and the auditor had an appointment to view financial records at the BCSO next Monday, June 13.

The auditor’s review of the bank statements previously provided reveal expenses totaling $96,816.43 during that eight-month period. Many of those expenses appear to be unrelated to the actual law enforcement work for which the grants were provided.

They include over $35,000 in unknown credit card expenses, more than $20,000 in attorneys’ fees and over $6,200 in costs associated with the leasing of a third office building for BCSO staff. The report also includes thousands of dollars in donations to charitable organizations or functions as well as unexplained payments to individuals including BCSO staff, Williams himself, and his daughter.

Besides the lack of public scrutiny over the sheriff ’s accounts, Waldrop says Williams’ actions could affect the county’s financial reputation in the future.

“Because the sheriff did not properly disclose the amount of cash in his possession, we did not submit an accurate financial statement,” Waldrop said. “It gives the appearance of hiding money from the public, your auditor and the state of Georgia. That can jeopardize the county’s ability to apply for other grants in the future and have an effect on the county’s bond rate. Plus it just looks bad to the public.”

Waldrop said that since the county had not been able to adequately review the expenses passing through the accounts, they don’t know at this point if anything illegal may have taken place or needs to be referred to another agency, such as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for further review. Waldrop also said the county may be forced to file some sort of suit against the sheriff if he continues to withhold the grant funds from the county.

The True Citizen made attempts to reach Sheriff Williams by phone, text, and email. Those requests for comment went unanswered.

WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING?

The county’s independent auditor has identified over $96,000 that has passed through the BCSO accounts. Some of those expenses include:

Credit Card payments $35,126.36

Hull Barrett, attorney fees $20,115.00

Burke Co Health Foundation $10,000.00

250 E. 6th St. office space $6,204.00

Crystal Berry $4,576.43

Ginn Motor Company $4,397.00

Katerworks (Christmas party) $3,719.10

Alfonzo Williams $552.00

Forces United (golf tournament) $500.00

Chandler Williams $480.00

Lee Webster $400.00

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