County closes drag strip tip-off case

District Attorney Danny Craig won't be pursuing allegations that Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams tipped off his son-in-law about the would-be site of a south Augusta drag strip.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation spent four months looking into Mark Pugh's purchase of property directly across from the 1,700-acre Augusta Corporate Park's entrance off Mike Padgett Highway. Through his company Covenant Distributors, Mr. Pugh entered a deal to buy the 0.48-acre parcel five weeks before the corporate park was made public as the preferred site for the Augusta Dragway.

"It appears that you proceeded to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter, and determined there has been no criminal wrongdoing," Mr. Craig wrote in a May 29 letter to the GBI, closing the case. "Accordingly, this office will take no further action."

While the GBI found no evidence of a crime, a review of the case file shows that the agency also found no explanation for the timing of Mr. Pugh's purchase or his formation of a limited liability company called Drag Snacks.

The investigation - termed a "preliminary review" by Mr. Craig - culminated with two agents interviewing Mr. Williams at the Municipal Building on April 27. The GBI wanted to talk to Mr. Pugh, but he told an agent he wouldn't answer questions without his lawyer present, then never followed up to arrange the interview.

Mr. Williams told the agents that he didn't know about his son-in-law's purchase of the land until afterward. Mr. Pugh later took him to the property to show it to him, Mr. Williams said.

A racing enthusiast since his teens, Mr. Williams told the GBI that he proposed the drag strip in 1999 and that his son-in-law attended commission meetings in which the site was discussed. He said he recalled former Chief Tax Appraiser E.W. "Sonny" Reece, pointing out the proposed location in a meeting.

But Mr. Reece, who resigned in March 2005, said when contacted by a reporter Monday that he recalled no discussion of the site during a public meeting.

The GBI did not interview the former chief appraiser. Mr. Reece said Mr. Williams did ask him about possible locations for a drag strip and that he told him about the corporate park owned by the Development Authority of Richmond County and gave Mr. Williams maps of the site.

An investigation by The Augusta Chronicle last year found that the corporate park location was made public Sept. 20, 2005, when Phil Gingerich, the track development and special projects manager for the International Hot Rod Association, made a presentation at a commission meeting.

The site was ultimately nixed when the Development Authority voted unanimously in December not to split off 250 acres from the corporate park, opting to continue efforts to land a major industrial project there.

Last year, Mr. Pugh told The Chronicle that he bought the property to either move his business there or build a gas station called Drag Snacks. He said he found out about the drag strip location from proponent Leo Charette - a businessman pitching the project to the commission - while chatting at the Carolina Dragway in Jackson.

Mr. Charette said he recalled that this conversation took place after the site became public knowledge.

Contacted Monday, Mr. Pugh disputed that, then declined to answer questions about how he learned about the dragway site. Asked why he didn't speak to the GBI, he responded, "Ask them."

"Now they can start investigating somebody else other than black politicians," he said. "I'm sure other people commit crimes, other than black politicians."

Mr. Williams said he's disappointed that the GBI waited until last to talk to him. He said the investigation was a smokescreen to stop the drag strip from being built, and he still thinks it's a viable project, probably more so than the proposed downtown baseball stadium.

He said he can understand why Mr. Pugh's land buy looked suspicious but that people shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.

"My son-in-law didn't buy five acres, six acres," Mr. Williams said. "He bought a half-acre lot which was across the street - that was for sale - from the property we were looking at.

"He didn't buy part of the property we were looking at. It wasn't side by side. It wasn't the same property."

Staff Writer Mike Wynn contributed to this story.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.