Originally created 02/28/04

Audit turns up past misdeeds

Another harsh audit of a troubled Augusta mental health center has turned up more past misdeeds by its former managers, including a generous severance package for a former director and payouts to lobbyists of nearly $200,000.

It is the latest revelation in a series of reports, some of which are before a federal grand jury in Savannah, of an ongoing investigation at Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia that stretches back to January 2003.

"We're still sending stuff over," acting Executive Director Phil Horton said. "They're still asking for stuff - checks, canceled checks, things of that nature."

A preliminary copy of the center's most recent audit, obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, said former Executive Director Campbell Peery got a severance package of $224,000 when he resigned in May 2001 after less than two years on the job. When asked at the time, center attorney Paul David flatly denied Mr. Peery had been given anything.

For some reason, the money was put into a bank account the center controlled, according to the audit.

Allegations of corruption and cronyism that emerged in January 2003 led to state and federal investigations and caused the center's former administrators to be suspended and then fired. Mr. David was also let go.

The new management discovered $130,000 of Mr. Peery's severance still in the account in April and seized control of it although "it is not reflected on the Center's financial statements." The money is actually in the form of a life insurance policy, Dr. Horton said.

It might be used to help offset a state budget cut this fiscal year, Dr. Horton said.

Lobbyist Rick Camp, a former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was listed on center records as a "contract specialist" with salary and benefits of $31,000 a year. He also was let go last year during the shake-up. The recent audit, however, says Mr. Camp was paid $141,000. Another lobbyist, M. Chad Long, was paid $44,000, the audit said.

The center is prohibited from using federal funds to hire lobbyists.

Mr. Camp did not return a phone message Friday, but he previously told The Chronicle he had done some governmental affairs work in Atlanta on behalf of the center's former administration.

"They didn't get very much money from the state, and it wasn't worth my time to continue working for them," he said.

Andy McCollum, the executive director for the East Central Regional Office, said the center was not supposed to have lobbyists.

"In fact, they signed our contract saying they don't have lobbyists, so that would not be OK for them to do," he said. "But I didn't know they had a lobbyist. They didn't bother to tell us that. We can't do something about stuff we don't know about."

The audit also notes $539,000 in Medicaid billing that former administrators submitted when a key authorization switch on its electronic billing system had been turned off, allowing the center to potentially submit and be paid for unauthorized services.

Auditors turned up a $5,000 payment to Early Corp. but could not find a contract with the company. The Georgia Secretary of State's office does not have a listing for the company.

"I think it had something to do with our computers but that's about all I know," Dr. Horton said.

The audit also notes lucrative contracts awarded to vendors with ties to the center's former administrators and their associates, contracts that were blasted in a previous state audit.

Reach Sylvia Cooper and Tom Corwin

at (706) 724-0851.


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