State revenue officials shut down and seized four Bryant's Food & Fuel convenience stores in Augusta and Thomson on Tuesday for alleged nonpayment of sales taxes.
Company President Joel H. Bryant reacted late Tuesday by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which could help him save the stores from being sold at auction.
Revenue officers said they plan to investigate what Mr. Bryant did with the sales taxes collected at the 24-hour stores since December 2000, which could result in criminal charges.
"I don't know what he did with the money or what he was doing with the money, but it wasn't coming to the state," said Carl E. Brown, the regional manager for the Department of Revenue. "We're talking a half a million dollars recorded in McDuffie and Richmond counties."
On Tuesday morning, officials asked customers at the four stores to leave and told employees to clock out. Officials changed the locks, posted notices on the windows and draped yellow tape around the gasoline pumps that read, "Seized by Georgia Department of Revenue."
The store's Augusta locations are at 2631 Washington Road and 499 Highland Ave. In Thomson, officials closed stores at 1941 and 1965 Washington Road, just off Interstate 20.
The state has never shut down four stores in the area at one time, Mr. Brown said. The shutdown was a joint operation of the Georgia Department of Revenue and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Unit.
All day Tuesday, customers drove up and tried to buy cigarettes or snacks, only to find the doors locked and the lights out.
Aaron Taylor said he visited the Surrey Center location daily to grab a pack of cigarettes. He said he would now have to go across the street and pay a quarter more.
"Man, that's bad," he said of the store's closing. "I hope to God they reopen. They were good folks."
Late Tuesday, Mr. Bryant filed a petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Augusta, seeking protection from more than a dozen creditors and stating his estimated debt at $2 million.
A federal bankruptcy judge could order the state to reopen the stores as company officials reorganize and restructure their debt. If a judge does not grant protection, state revenue officials will advertise the stores and the company's assets for auction by the first week of September.
In his bankruptcy filing, Mr. Bryant indicated that he had 30 employees. State revenue officials plan to help the displaced employees find other jobs, Mr. Brown said.
Revenue officials could ask the state attorney general's office for help in its criminal investigation, Mr. Brown said. If wrongdoing is found, the store's owner could face felony charges of theft by conversion.
The state has placed five liens on the stores, and court documents show the company has unpaid taxes totaling $504,757.
The stores are operated by Bryant's Video Oasis Inc., of North Augusta, which recently sold six of its stores in South Carolina, Mr. Brown said.
Earlier this year, members of the Bryant family settled a civil lawsuit out of court involving the chain of stores.
Jasper "Trey" Bryant had sued his brother Edward Oliver Bryant, alleging what he said was a systematic power grab of the family business. Trey Bryant said in the lawsuit that Edward Bryant put some of the business in Joel Bryant's hands without his permission. Joel Bryant is the son of Edward Bryant.
A woman answering the phone at the company's North Augusta office at 921 Georgia Ave. said company officials had no comment.
A TAXING PROBLEM
More than a half-million dollars is owed in sales taxes by four Bryant's Food & Fuel locations, including the store at 499 Highland Ave., shown above. Authorities closed the stores Tuesday. Here's a breakdown:
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.