More digging to do

Jackson probes excavator case, noting it’s “broader in scope” than first thought

Two county employees are gone in the case of the misappropriated excavator, and the sheriff’s department says there’s no more to see here.

 

But Janice Allen Jackson isn’t through digging.

The Augusta city administrator has launched her own investigation into how and why a Richmond County “Mini-Ex” excavator was hauled from the sheriff’s practice range to a personal job on private property in another county, Lincoln County, earlier this year. And with a Richmond County official’s blessing.

Even after one employee, McKinley “Mac” Williams, was allowed to retire in March and another, former Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson — who reportedly gave permission for the completely inappropriate “borrowing” of public property — was allowed to resign with a generous three-month severance, Jackson is troubled.

That equipment was not a county employee’s to loan out. It’s ours. Moreover, what if that happened on a routine basis, and favors were being traded with private entities using taxpayer-purchased items?

That’s a distinct possibility, as it turns out.

To her undying credit, Jackson wouldn’t let it go. She was willing to listen to whistleblowers — it was an alert citizen who brought this all to public attention — and even participated in a recent Facebook chat with local public watchdogs.

“I contacted individuals involved in making the complaint,” she told The Chronicle. “Their comments to me indicated the matter was broader in scope than it first appeared. After those conversations, it was apparent that I needed to begin my own investigation.

“The more I learn about this situation, the more complicated it appears. What started as one investigation by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office has grown into a separate, but related administrative investigation by me with assistance from the (county’s) general counsel. To be clear, I have not, at any point, issued any findings or conclusions, as we continue the basic task of gathering the facts.”

Intriguing, if not ominous. Just as interesting, Jackson would not say whether she thought Johnson had been forthcoming about his involvement in the incident when he briefed her in March. All this makes you wonder. What other licenses have county employees taken with taxpayer tools and equipment? What outside entities might have benefited from such “favors” with taxpayer-paid equipment? Have there been crimes committed? Does the “broader in scope” problem that Jackson referenced rise to the level of corruption?

At least one whistleblower and one Augusta commissioner, Marion Williams, have called for a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe. Sadly, Williams couldn’t even get a second to his motion from his colleagues this week, who appear content that everything that needs to be done has been done.

Yet, the decision of whether to call in the GBI may not be up to commissioners anyway. If her eventual findings involve the sheriff’s department in any way, an outside agency such as the GBI would be involved by necessity.

And we still haven’t heard from District Attorney Natalie Paine, who told us Friday that her determination of criminal wrongdoing — based solely on the existing sheriff’s report of the incident, not on Jackson’s ongoing investigation — will be announced as early as Tuesday.

We applaud Ms. Jackson for plodding on and doing the right thing.

And that’s to keep digging.

 

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