GRAHAM, GA. - Graham, a south Georgia community of about 290, has been a city only since 1991.
But it has enough history, some of it a little dark, to cover decades. Lonnie Crosby, the elected mayor, has been removed from office, quit and just last week withdrew an appeal intended to get him back into office.
His removal arose from assertions he used a city credit card, equipment and city funds for personal gain. That could be part of a criminal investigation that is running parallel to the city’s civil action.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson confirmed her office has been working with law enforcement in an investigation of Graham’s financial books.
That investigation grew with an April arson that burned part of City Hall and gutted the rest. The fire started in the area where the city’s financial records were kept.
“The financial affairs and records could have been relevant to what we are doing,” she said.
There is some backup, however, because bank and other records mirror city financial ledgers in some cases, she said.
City Hall is being rebuilt and Mayor Pro Tem John Fogarty, who is the acting mayor and thus chief executive, said he’s trying to reconstruct the rest.
Fogarty is not your typical chief municipal executive. He prefers T-shirts and jeans and his pickup doesn’t leave the yard without Keila, his blue heeler herd dog who finds a shady spot to wait wherever Fogarty stops.
Standing inside the office trailer that serves as the temporary city hall and police department, Fogarty said it was a chore to remove Crosby.
“We voted him out in January,” Fogarty said. “He said he had the right to veto that. We had to get the city attorney to show him he couldn’t. Then we voted him out again in February.”
After the second vote, Crosby met Fogarty at City Hall, handed over his keys and said, “I quit.”
After the city changed the locks, Crosby said he had been dismissed illegally and appealed to Superior Court for reinstatement.
The city countered that to allow Crosby back into City Hall would also provide access to unauthorized people including his family members and felons.
In at least one case, the family member is a felon, Crosby’s son Ryan, who figured in the case against him.
At the dismissal hearing, there was testimony that Ryan Crosby had used the water department’s truck and wrecked it and that he had twice driven a city police car to Brunswick to meet with his probation officer.
There also were allegations of misuse of city equipment for letting the former police chief take a city tractor home to Jeff Davis County to dig a swimming pool.
Speaking of swimming pools, it’s been cheap to fill one in Graham because the water meters haven’t been read in five to seven years, Fogarty said. That meant everybody paid the minimum rate.
“You could fill up your swimming pool for $15.50. You could water your whole neighborhood for $15.50,” Fogarty said.
People who used city water to irrigate big vegetable gardens or to wash their cars frequently did it with free water while the city struggled, all to keep voters happy, Fogarty said.
The water system is the city’s top revenue source — it doesn’t levy property taxes — and Graham must pay $1,400 a month to satisfy the U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that financed the system. That’s tough because the 200 customers were paying a total of $3,100 a month and city salaries, maintenance and other costs had to come from that.
There was a reserve in a “sinking fund,” but Crosby drained that to pay $24,500 owed to the state for the right to issue traffic and other citations, Fogarty said.
“He transferred it to the general fund and then sent it to the state” without a council vote, he said.
Johnson declined to say whether that is accurate, but she explained that any municipality that operates a court must pay a percentage of fines to the state for a jail construction fund, processing and other fees.
Fogarty said the real question is why it was necessary to use water revenue to pay off the state.
“Where did the fine money go?” he asked.
Johnson would not confirm that missing fine money is part of the multi-agency investigation she is coordinating. She said the investigation is nearing an end and that criminal charges — if there are any — will come soon.
Giving up the fight
Now that Crosby has dismissed his appeal, there will be no more discussion about the reasons for his removal. His decision means the June 25 jury trial won’t be held.
His lawyer, Franklin J. Edenfield of Swainsboro, had asked for the trial.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett had already denied a request for a restraining order that would have let Crosby back into City Hall, but he said the city had to keep paying Crosby until after the trial. The mayor gets $600 a month.
After a pretrial hearing on Crosby’s petition, Scarlett issued an order with some strong language. Scarlett noted that Crosby’s memory had failed him on the following:
- Whether he ever made personal use of a city credit card or city funds.
- Why he hadn’t ensured that water bills were mailed.
- Why he hadn’t prepared a budget for years.
- How money that was to have been spent only on the water project was used to satisfy state fees the city owed from traffic fines.
Scarlett concluded that allowing Crosby access to city records would result in “irreparable harm … due to his apparently impaired mental condition which was graphically demonstrated by his testimony.”
Attempts to reach Crosby by phone failed. His service provider said his phone had been temporarily disconnected.
Edenfield said during a telephone interview that Crosby won’t try to get back into office.
“He just decided to go on with his life,” he said. “Lonnie’s health is really bad. That’s why he decided to dismiss the appeal.”
Asked whether Scarlett had correctly assessed Crosby’s health in his order, Edenfield said he had not.
“It’s medical,” he said. “It’s not mental.”