The Augusta Commission voted 7-1 on Tuesday to abandon plans for a forensic audit on the deal-making associated with the downtown convention center parking deck and rely instead on local law enforcement to examine the deals for wrongdoing.
“I’m not going to spend $300,000, $180,000 or $10 to put on a forensic audit,” said Commissioner Joe Jackson, who offered a motion to invite local law enforcement in. “If it’s that criminal, then let’s get the authorities in here at no expense to Augusta-Richmond County.”
If a forensic auditor had found criminal wrongdoing, the findings would have been turned over to prosecutors, who would have conducted their own investigation anyway, Jackson said.
“Why are we going to spend the same dollars twice?” he asked.
Jackson offered the motion as a substitute to Commissioner Bill Lockett’s motion to refer four questions setting the scope of the audit to a dozen firms bidding on the work. Jackson’s motion was seconded by District 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken and opposed only by Lockett.
Aitken said he ran for the commission three years ago on completing the convention center and that the months of recent commission stalling and debate “makes us a laughingstock of this area.”
“I don’t want to see people dictate or hold this government in bondage than what we’ve already seen,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”
During the meeting, one of Aitken’s opponents for re-election, Harrisburg activist Lori Davis, implored commission members to re-examine the deals. Davis frequently comments on the anonymously run blog City Stink, which has investigated and questioned various aspects of the parking deck and other city deals at length.
“It became apparent that the deals were put together … in favor of the companies involved,” Davis said. “We can ill-afford to continue to do business in this way.”
The vote followed a glowing financial audit presented by Miller Edwards of the firm Mauldin & Jenkins, hired by the city this year to conduct the required annual review. Edwards presented a “clean” review with no reportable findings, he said, and the audit revealed a $1.6 million surplus.
Commission members who previously voted for the forensic audit but changed their vote Tuesday included Corey Johnson, Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle. Commissioners Alvin Mason and J.R. Hatney, who have routinely criticized the deals and their architects, were absent Tuesday.
Johnson said anyone with information about the transactions can submit it to District Attorney Ashley Wright’s office. Wright did not return a call requesting comment.
Guilfoyle said he hoped for a thorough grand jury investigation, like the one into the Augusta Fire Department a decade ago, “as long as we get it looked at and answered; if we can get it investigated without costing taxpayers.”
Paul Simon, the president of two firms involved in some of the transactions, said the details that created
controversy among commissioners in the past year had been approved by the commission several times, including when bonds were issued and sold to fund the project.
Simon’s companies, Augusta Riverfront LLC and 933 Broad LLC, have ties to management of Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta Riverfront runs the existing riverfront conference center under the Marriott brand and will operate the entire convention center when it is complete later this year.