Lincoln County equipment probe continues

Forested land off Booths Branch Road in rural Lincoln County is where Augusta employees admitted using government equipment on a private job site this spring.

McKinley “Mac” Williams, the employee at the center of a city equipment controversy that prompted a department head’s resignation, “would do anything for you if you asked him to,” including free brush-clearing for his contractor friend Troy Meeks, Meeks said.

 

Williams had Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson’s permission in March to haul city equipment to property listed in Meeks’ name while on the clock, sometimes taking another employee with him, according to a Richmond County Sheriff’s Office incident report.

Meeks, a Statesboro contractor who has done work at the landfill, where Williams and Johnson worked, said he wasn’t at the Lincoln County property when Williams went there to use what he thought was a piece of equipment, a Bobcat, owned by Hugh Brown, another landfill contractor.

Brown “said we could use it any time we needed to,” Meeks said. At the remote, forested site, “they were there simply helping me out, as a friend,” he said.

The activities that led to Johnson’s resignation caught the attention of a former landfill employee, Jake Jacobson, who lives nearby and told his friend, Al Gray. Gray sent photos of the equipment to investigators.

When the sheriff’s office started an investigation March 17, the equipment was removed. The excavator, a “Mini-Ex,” had been on loan from the sheriff’s practice range, the report said. At the range, Deputy Rusty Eskew oversees military and other equipment that sometimes finds its way to the adjoining landfill. On March 20, Gray photographed Johnson at the Lincoln County site.

Williams, who didn’t return a call seeking comment, was allowed a planned retirement March 31 after City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson received what she said was an abbreviated version of the incident report from Johnson that omitted the department head’s involvement.

Jackson has come under fire from Augusta commissioners for informing them the matter was settled with Williams’ retirement. As of Friday, Johnson had not signed a release, according to city spokesman Jim Beasley, and continues to receive his salary, despite commissioners’ vote to award him three months’ severance pay.

Jackson didn’t have time for an interview Thursday or Friday, Beasley said, but posted numerous comments Friday on the Facebook group Augusta Political Watch. Beasley said the posts were Jackson’s.

“The more information I learn, the more complicated it appears,” Jackson said. “What started as one investigation by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office has grown into a separate but related investigation by me,” with assistance from the law department, Jackson said.

Jackson said she wasn’t provided the sheriff’s report when Johnson briefed her about Williams and didn’t receive it until requesting it in late May.

“I did not do an investigation in March. At that time, I was presented with information limited to the involvement of the employee seen on site with the equipment,” she said. “Certainly hindsight is 20/20, but I was operating with the best information I had at the time.”

While the report states it was to be forwarded to the district attorney’s office, DA Natalie Paine said she did not receive it requesting it. Paine said Friday she was reviewing the matter .

Jackson praised online and employee whistleblowers who call attention to government waste and fraud. She said she hoped the Lincoln County incident will “serve as deterrent” to other employees.

The controversy will continue Tuesday when the commission will take up a request by Commissioner Marion Williams to enlist the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in part due to involvement by the sheriff’s office.

Another commissioner said he hopes the matter will soon be settled.

“Either the man did right or wrong, whatever it is, get it cleared up,” Commissioner Grady Smith said.

 

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

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