A common thread ties Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp.'s employees, contractors, board appointees and money directly or indirectly to one person - its vice chairman, state Sen. Charles Walker.
For example, the corporation has paid Mr. Walker's brother Wade, who has ownership in CSRA Custodial Services, $8,199 for custodial work, and the senator's re-election campaign coordinator, Henry Ingram, was recently appointed to the ANIC board of directors.
ANIC was created in 1999 after Mr. Walker, as Senate majority leader, helped bring $20 million in state tax money to Augusta to help revitalize the blighted area off Laney-Walker Boulevard. The money also helped fund other projects, including Springfield Village, Augusta Common and Antioch Ministries.
Being ANIC's vice chairman and the key figure behind its funding, Mr. Walker was supported in his quest for re-election by those who do business with the nonprofit corporation. Many contributed to Mr. Walker's failed effort to stay in the state Senate.
Nicholas Dickinson, the architect who designed a planned $1.6 million ANIC building for $80,052, and members of his family contributed $6,250 to Mr. Walker's re-election campaign and Charles Walker Jr.'s 12th Congressional District campaign.
Pat Jefferson, the owner of Pat Jefferson Realty, which markets and sells ANIC houses, was the chief financial officer of one of Mr. Walker's now-dissolved corporations. Ms. Jefferson contributed $1,000 to the younger Mr. Walker's campaign. Pat Jefferson agent Joseph C. Jones also contributed $1,000.
The partners of ANIC's law firm and one family member contributed $9,000 to Charles Walker Jr.'s campaign and Mr. Walker's re-election effort.
Fletcher, Harley & Fletcher does the legal work for property acquisitions and real-estate closings stemming from ANIC's revitalization work.
The firm has another connection to the ANIC vice chairman. Mr. Walker's daughter, Monique Walker, works part time as one of its lawyers.
Pete Fletcher, one of the firm's principals, is also the attorney for the Richmond County School Board.
A few months after Mr. Fletcher was chosen to do ANIC's legal work, Dr. Charles Larke, Richmond County school superintendent, suggested that the Fletcher firm needed help with school tribunals, and the firm hired Ms. Walker, Mr. Fletcher said.
He said she also works on Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment issues.
"She works part time, and I pay her by the hour for doing those tasks," he said.
MR. WALKER MAINTAINS that he does not run ANIC, but a former board member said the vice chairman's influence on the corporation is pervasive.
"The ANIC group is not a group he can simply ride over, but he does have an awful lot of influence," said Augusta businessman Julian Osbon, one of ANIC's original members. "But the director, Robert Cooks, totes Charles Walker's water."
Mr. Cooks did not return a phone call to the ANIC officelast week.
State auditors have looked at some of the ANIC-Walker ties. They found that Mr. Walker and some organizations he is affiliated with collected more than $125,000 from nonprofit agencies that receive tax money, including $4,000 a month in rent from the CSRA Business League, which leases his building on Laney-Walker.
Mr. Walker has denied receiving any direct benefits from ANIC money "other than normal, legal and ethical business transactions."
THE STATE AUDIT, released in August, did not attempt to establish whether any of the transactions involving Mr. Walker were illegal.
But one former ANIC contractor says he was questioned by the FBI two months ago about the corporation and Mr. Walker's connection to a demolition contractor.
Hiram Thompson, the president of Thompson Building and Wrecking Co. Inc., said his company did demolition work for ANIC from December 2000 until August 2001, when the corporation started using a new company, F&W Construction Inc.
"I guess specifically (the FBI) wanted to know if there was a relationship between ANIC and F&W, and why F&W was exclusively doing the demolition work for ANIC," Mr. Thompson said. "I told them I didn't know of any specific relationship. The only thing was I believed F&W rented their office building from Mr. Walker, so they were curious about that."
F&W Construction is located in an office building at 1402 12th St., along with B&J Bail Bonding Inc. According to Richmond County property-tax records, the building belongs to Mr. Walker.
F&W Construction has done 38 projects for ANIC totaling $230,750, at an average price of $6,072 per project, the records indicate.
Thompson Building completed 16 ANIC projects worth $59,326 at an average price of $3,707 per project. The work also included asbestos abatement.
Mr. Thompson said his company did the demolitions and asbestos abatement for less than ANIC is paying F&W Construction for demolitions alone.
"F&W got $2,364.67 more on average per house than I did, and they quit using me," he said. "F&W also doesn't have to deal with the asbestos abatement. ANIC hired an environmental consulting firm to do the survey work and prepare the documents, and they hired an asbestos abatement firm to go in ahead of F&W and take out the asbestos. And my work included that.
"They've done $230,000 worth of houses, and they're paying them twice as much as they were paying me for doing more work."
F&W project manager Bessie Stapleton, who also is the chief executive officer of B&J Bail Bonding, said she rents the 12th Street building through Pat Jefferson Realty. She said she did not know it belonged to Mr. Walker, although she knows him well, she said.
She said F&W Construction was formed in April 2001 to help her grandson and his friend get started in construction work. Mrs. Stapleton said she "stumbled upon ANIC" while looking for the Augusta Housing and Neighborhood Development Department.
ED REINHOLD, THE supervisory senior resident FBI agent in Augusta, said he could not comment about any FBI investigation or even whether there is an investigation.
Mr. Walker, however, said rumors of a federal investigation involving him are bogus.
He said the 12th Street building is leased to B&J Bail Bonding, not F&W Construction, and he didn't know anything about F&W or Hiram Thompson.
"I lease the building to a bonding company," he said. "If they sublet it to somebody, that's not my business."
He said he's proud of what ANIC has done in the Laney-Walker Boulevard area.
"ANIC is doing an outstanding job, and there are a lot of people that don't want the project to be successful. But I think it will be successful because we're helping poor people, and that's all that matters," he said.
ANIC is a private corporation funded by tax dollars and governed by a board of directors and is not required to bid out projects or seek requests for qualifications.
"We do not put projects out for bid because we don't have to, but everything we do is approved by our board of directors," ANIC Director Robert Cooks said in an earlier interview.
ANIC board members, employees, grant recipients, contractors and other professionals contributed to Charles Walker's state Senate re-election campaign or to Charles Walker Jr.'s campaign for the 12th Congressional District seat. Among them:
"I don't think one thing has anything to do with the other," Mrs. Graybeal said.
Source: ANIC finance records and year-end report
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or email@example.com.
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