Surgery saved obese woman

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She couldn't work. She couldn't walk. She couldn't breathe.

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Atosha Harden before gastric bypass surgery  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Atosha Harden before gastric bypass surgery

Two and a half years ago, Atosha Harden had become so morbidly obese, her health so critical, that her mother feared she would lose her. Her lungs weren't expanding properly. She suffered seizures and sleep apnea, and she was in the hospital every month with pneumonia. She was also on the verge of kidney failure.

At her worst, Ms. Harden said, she weighed 465 pounds.

"I had to bathe her, like a baby," her mother Hazel Newsome said. "She was dying."

A customer service representative for Augusta Utilities, Ms. Harden had health insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield. Doctors were recommending gastric bypass surgery -- an intestinal rearrangement to decrease stomach volume -- but the company wouldn't cover it, she said.

But the surgery was done on May 10, 2007, at Trinity Hospital, and it was done because of Commissioner Betty Beard, Ms. Harden said. Ms. Beard told The Augusta Chronicle on Wednesday that she steered $20,000 to Ms. Harden's surgery out of a $25,000 donation given to the city by Edmundson and Gallagher Group, the developer who turned Maxwell House Apartments into Section 8 housing.

Why the money was paid and how it wound up funding a city employee's surgery is now under investigation by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office and the FBI, a source in law enforcement confirmed to The Chronicle on Thursday. Ms. Harden and Mrs. Newsome said they never expected this to happen, and they feel awful about it. The scrutiny might lead to problems for them, too, because the money wasn't reported in tax filings, Mrs. Newsome said.

"She saved my child's life," Mrs. Newsome said of Ms. Beard.

"I hate it," Ms. Harden, 39, said. "I understand that people are going to have their opinions and their views, but she was my angel-sent. She was my voice when I had no voice."

Also defending Ms. Beard on Friday was Edmundson and Gallagher principal Tom Gallagher, who called the notion that his company bribed Ms. Beard to get support for Maxwell House renovations "absolutely ridiculous."

Ms. Beard, whose home phone was perpetually busy Friday and who didn't answer her cell phone, said Thursday that "if I have to go to jail over something like this, that's fine." Mr. Gallagher said the same goes for him, and he'd be more than willing to explain it all to the FBI.

In 2004, the Virginia-based developer and Atlanta-based Progressive Redevelopment were trying to drum up support for the Augusta Housing Authority's issuance of tax-exempt bonds allowing Maxwell House, a high-rise at the corner of Greene and 10th streets, to be renovated into subsidized housing.

Mr. Gallagher said when he first proposed the plan to city officials, the deal included a $25,000 charitable contribution.

"As part of that transaction, we said we'd like to put something back into the community," he said.

Initially, when he made the pitch to Main Street Augusta -- a now-defunct arm of the Downtown Development Authority -- he suggested the money go toward streetscape improvements on Greene Street, Mr. Gallagher said. He said this was done in the open, to the organization as a whole, and later to the commission as a whole.

"Really, we 'bribed' everybody," he said. "They're called proffers in the public world."

Mr. Gallagher said it's a common practice across the country. When a developer seeks to profit off a community, they offer to give something back, he said.

"This is done all the time in these deals," he said. "Normally, it's demanded. It could be a turning lane, it could be a contribution to the community, it could be a day care."

Both Main Street Augusta and former Mayor Bob Young -- who as mayor could have signed off on the bond endorsement the company was seeking -- refused to back the Maxwell House plan. Mr. Young said Thursday that he didn't think downtown needed any more Section 8 housing.

But Mr. Gallagher found support on the Augusta Commission. Ms. Beard said Thursday that she supports affordable housing and would have voted to approve the resolution regardless of the $25,000 offer.

The bond endorsement resolution passed 7-3 in December 2004. Mr. Gallagher said he called Ms. Beard later and told her he wanted to honor the $25,000 commitment, that the money could go to a charity of her choice. He said he was dealing with her because the building was in her district.

According to city financial records obtained under an open records request, Maxwell House LLC cut a $25,000 check to the city in September 2005. Ms. Beard presented a $5,000 check to the Augusta Youth Center on Oct. 4.

But at the Oct. 18 meeting, Mr. Young raised the issue and then-City Attorney Steve Shepard advised returning the money, saying he was concerned that accepting a gift violated the ethics ordinance and could create an appearance of impropriety for Ms. Beard. The commission voted 6-2-2 to do so, with Ms. Beard abstaining.

The city cut a $20,000 check to Maxwell House LLC, dated March 23, 2007 -- 17 months after the commission vote. Mr. Gallagher said when the money came, he spoke to Ms. Beard again and said he still wanted to give the money to charity. She suggested helping a morbidly obese employee, and Mr. Gallagher said he approved.

Asked who the $20,000 was paid to, Mr. Gallagher said he couldn't recall, that the records are now in storage.

Mrs. Newsome said she had set up the Atosha Harden Health Fund at First Bank, and she doesn't know who deposited the money into the account. She said she, in turn, paid the money to bariatric surgeon Michael Blaney.

Before the surgery, Ms. Harden had been out of work for more than a year on long-term disability. She was taking nine different medications and was on oxygen.

Her mother, Mrs. Newsome, said Ms. Beard has been a friend of the family since the early 1990s, when Mrs. Newsome was her hairdresser and Ms. Beard and her late husband, Lee Beard, lived in Maxwell House themselves.

After she mentioned the health insurance problem to Ms. Beard, the commissioner took the matter to City Administrator Fred Russell, who said Wednesday that he told her nothing could be done. Mrs. Newsome said Ms. Beard later told her she could get the money out of a donation.

Ms. Harden said she's since lost 245 pounds. She put on 15 pounds before she gave birth to a daughter in March, but she's since lost that weight, too.

"I'm still losing," she said. "I feel so good. I'm able to do things that I never thought I'd be able to do again, like go to the mall, go to the grocery store, walk to my car.

"She was just doing something from her heart," Ms. Harden said of Ms. Beard. "This wasn't malice or deceit. This was nothing to benefit her. This was just her helping someone that she knew didn't have any any alternatives."

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

Comments (146) Add comment
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oldetownbroad
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oldetownbroad 09/19/09 - 10:42 am
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This "giving back to the

This "giving back to the community" is done in most all of the government grants for affordable housing. The company that renovated houses in Olde Town ( over 30 of them ) also had to build a playground, establish a laundrymat and gave computers to the Augusta Youth Center. This is different than giving cash and one person spending it without the commission or the public's knowledge. BB cannot pull her "I am just a nice person " BS here. Aother example of BB wanting to "help" other people, just not with her money. She "helped" the people live in her house in Bethlem - with no electricity.
Now she wants the city to pay to clean up Bethlehem and Laney Walker. These are NOT the only area she is suppose to represent. She does not care about Olde Town and the problems that are created for a neighborhood by mis managed section 8 housing. I too am for public housing, but any one area should not be saturated.
Just look down from your tower, Betty...we are right at your front door.

irish62009
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irish62009 09/19/09 - 10:44 am
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It very well to help other

It very well to help other people if you are able,but if it's not your own funds but the tax payers,this doesn't seem legal.It would seem to me this money would have been better spent in research or to help the family of a young child who has a illness that is to expensive for the family to afford treatment,instead of giving it to an obese woman to lose weight and give birth to a child into already overpopulated world.

KSL
129323
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KSL 09/19/09 - 10:45 am
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Grasshopper, although the

Grasshopper, although the money was given back and was the developer's to do with as he pleased, he turned around and approached one of the commissioners and "bought her vote." It was totally inappropriate. As for Ms Harden, she isn't working. If she were, she would have mentioned it. She mentioned that she now can go to the mall, the grocery store and walk to her car. This story is disgusting all the way around.

elchupacabra
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elchupacabra 09/19/09 - 10:46 am
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$20,000 given to help one

$20,000 given to help one fatty or give $20,000 to help feed people who are on the streets and starving? If you're going to give money that isn't yours to "charity." I say help out more than one person who actually needs help! This woman obviously doesn't care about herself enough to put down the fork and EXERCISE! A stomach surgery may help you lose weight but it doesn't change eating habits.....

Getoverit2
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Getoverit2 09/19/09 - 10:55 am
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Betty is resigning from her

Betty is resigning from her commission seat, I bet she though she would do it before she got caught - what else did she do. ???

Hey Betty, I need a maid - so I can sit on my [filtered word], and do nothing.

Getoverit2
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Getoverit2 09/19/09 - 10:58 am
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Sounds like stealing to me -

Sounds like stealing to me - go to jail Betty.... hey how is your rental property !!!!!!

iluvcollardgreens
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:05 am
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Betty is a hero in this case

Betty is a hero in this case and everyone needs to face it.She saved this ladies life.

jack
10
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jack 09/19/09 - 11:06 am
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This was NOT a charitable

This was NOT a charitable organization, which, I understand, the R/AC commission can divrt gifts to. Beard needs to show where in her tax return she claimed the $20K and paid taxes on it, or she, in fact, took a bribe and violate IRS rules/law..

disssman
6
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disssman 09/19/09 - 11:07 am
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I still think the

I still think the investigation will trickle off into the little gas cards the comissioners have and questions are going to be raised as to why dosen't the city issue 1099 forms for those gifts. Of course the lack of a 1099 dosen't absolve the comissioners from reporting gifts as required by federal tax laws. It is going to get good before its over. As to the lady, she needs to file an amended return immediately and declare the income, The amended return would also show the medical expenses as a deduction. She will owe some money but it is a pittance. BTW I have known people who had that surgery and Ms. Harden dosen't really look like she has lost a lot of weight in the last two years.

iluvcollardgreens
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:09 am
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I am a conservative, and I

I am a conservative, and I believe that this money was given in a sincere manner.My wife had to have a surgery like this 2 years ago and I understand what this lady was going through.

disssman
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disssman 09/19/09 - 11:10 am
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I almost forgot to say. Ms.

I almost forgot to say. Ms. Harden get yourself to a tax professional today.

jack
10
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jack 09/19/09 - 11:11 am
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Where in heck does the AC

Where in heck does the AC come off running this story?
Posted by my.voice on Sat Sep 19, 2009 5:59 AM....Because it is NEWS about the conduct (or misconduct) of a local politician.

Dixieman
14943
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Dixieman 09/19/09 - 11:13 am
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Diet, exercise and

Diet, exercise and self-control are free and effective.

iluvcollardgreens
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:18 am
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May God bless you Mrs. Beard

May God bless you Mrs. Beard for saving this womans life.And the people giving the money had no problem with it.So people have a heart and let this go.

Getoverit2
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Getoverit2 09/19/09 - 11:28 am
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Wrong is wrong, go to jail -

Wrong is wrong, go to jail - no free pass.

Getoverit2
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Getoverit2 09/19/09 - 11:30 am
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I'm just shocked at people

I'm just shocked at people that uphold wrong doing. This is why we have so many evil people in the news these days.

iluvcollardgreens
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:33 am
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Whats wrong with saving a

Whats wrong with saving a life.

iluvcollardgreens
0
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:35 am
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The developer had no problem

The developer had no problem with it,I mean if this money came from tax payers ok yea,But it didn't people should have a heart and let this go.

KSL
129323
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KSL 09/19/09 - 11:41 am
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Save a life and while you are

Save a life and while you are at it, buy a favorable vote. That is what is wrong. It was the vote buying, collard. If there was nothing wrong, then why was it not disclosed at the time.

iluvcollardgreens
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:45 am
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It was not vote buying the

It was not vote buying the developer said they give things like this away all the time as most developers do.

1opinion
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1opinion 09/19/09 - 11:46 am
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I think BB should have to

I think BB should have to donate 20,000 out of her pocket into the community, as well as be fined $5,000 for contacting Maxwell House LLC, after commission voted to return the remainder of the money.

iluvcollardgreens
0
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iluvcollardgreens 09/19/09 - 11:49 am
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I could understand being

I could understand being upset if ms beard took the money and spent it on herself or some personal item. but this money saved a womans life.

KSL
129323
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KSL 09/19/09 - 12:02 pm
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collards, paying for a

collards, paying for a woman's surgery at the suggestion of a commissioner is not the same as putting in a turn lane. I am well aware that developers spend dollars for the betterment of a community. For example, the FineDeering Development group donated 20 acres in their new development at Trolley Run Station for a Family Y to be built in the development. Hardly the same as giving a gift to benefit a friend of a commissioner. I feel sorry for you if you can't see the impropriety here.

corgimom
32266
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corgimom 09/19/09 - 12:15 pm
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I just wonder why BC would

I just wonder why BC would not approve gastric bypass surgery for a 450 lb woman. I've known other people that were approved.

corgimom
32266
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corgimom 09/19/09 - 12:17 pm
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Corporations are not allowed

Corporations are not allowed to hand $20,000 to people without reporting it as a gift. Charitable deductions have to be to approved non-profit organizations to be tax-deductable.

KSL
129323
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KSL 09/19/09 - 01:08 pm
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I was wondering if Edmundson

I was wondering if Edmundson and Gallagher wrote that $20,000 off.

jasonpilgrim
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jasonpilgrim 09/19/09 - 01:54 pm
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If Betty Beard was so

If Betty Beard was so concerned about this woman, why didn't she pay for it herself with her own money!!!!! The only weight problem this lady had was that she couldn't weight to eat. Lastly it's been 4 or 5 yrs. since this surgery? By looking at the picture in the paper she looks like she still weighs 250-280 lbs. Maybe Mrs. Beard should start looking for another donation so this woman can get a "lap band".

DEVGRU
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DEVGRU 09/19/09 - 02:12 pm
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I don't blame this woman for

I don't blame this woman for using the money. Glad she is healthier, but the way this transaction was handled was still improper and Betty Beard is right in the middle of it. Votes for funds is still wrong. My child could understand that.

InChristLove
22473
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InChristLove 09/19/09 - 02:24 pm
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I find some of these comments

I find some of these comments today pretty sad. Whether Mrs. Beard did wrong or not, all of these derogatory comments towards Ms. Harden and her weight are so uncalled for. When someone gets to this high of weight it is almost impossible to diet and exercise (you can't breathe, you can hardly move). My sister had some medical problems and her weight increase to the point where she decided to have gastric by-pass surgery. This is not something these people take lightly, there are major complications that can occurr and we almost lost my sister. Since her surgery she has lost the weight and can exercise and she doesn't have a choice in watching what she eats...if you want to spend all day in the bathroom you learn what you can and can not eat. If they want to investigate Mrs. Beard then fine but please do not degrade Ms. Harden, she chose life because death was the only other alternative.

humbleopinion
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humbleopinion 09/19/09 - 02:34 pm
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What is really disgusting is

What is really disgusting is that YOU can EAT yourself obese and then get PAID to sit at home eating MORE. Being OBESE is NOT a "long term disability". It is a personal CHOICE to eat and eat and eat until you weigh 500 lbs.

This person did NOT need a $20,000 surgery. The only thing they needed was a $4 roll of duct tape to put OVER HER MOUTH.

This is nothing more than another example of people who can't or won't take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY and then expect OTHERS to take care of everything for them.

And now we have Democrats who want US who DO take care of our personal responsibilities to start paying for OTHERS who do not.

For the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE I am disappointed in America.

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