Beard details role in $25,000 donation, surgery

Correction, September 22, 2009: Because of an error in the City Ink column in Sunday's edition, former city administrative assistant Meschery Powell was incorrectly identified as having hired an attorney to represent her for $225 an hour. It should have said city attorney Chiquita Johnson was represented by the lawyer. (Highlight changes)

The big whoop in Augusta politics last week was over a $25,000 donation - some call it a bribe - that a developer who wanted to renovate the Maxwell House Apartments downtown made to the city five years ago.

There was nothing secret about the donation. It was discussed openly in at least three public meetings, and nobody seemed to have a problem with that, except maybe then-Mayor Bob Young. The objection was over something else.

Edmondson & Gallagher first offered the $25,000 to Main Street Augusta to be used for a streetscape on Greene Street, but Main Street rejected the offer because the apartments would have Section 8 tenants, some of whom would be Community Mental Health patients. They were afraid Maxwell House would become another Richmond Summit, which at the time was a trouble spot on Broad Street.

A major opponent was Mr. Young, who was against renovating the apartments into affordable housing, code words for somebody else paying your rent. He said the city already had enough affordable housing, which is ironic in the first degree because he later became Southeast regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the granddaddy of Section 8.

Anyway, after Main Street said no, the developer offered to donate the money to the charity of Commissioner Betty Beard's choice, because she represents the district. Mrs. Beard said she found the offer in line with donations many other companies had made to schools and charities over the years. So Edmondson & Gallagher eventually prevailed with a majority of Augusta commissioners, all of whom knew about the $25,000 donation.

And at Mrs. Beard's behest, $5,000 went to the Augusta Youth Center, and much later, and much more quietly, the rest to city water department employee Atosha Harden's gastric bypass surgery.

Now what do you know? Five years later, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office and the FBI are investigating, and City Administrator Fred Russell has had a complete and total loss of memory.

It Was Business As Usual: "As we (commissioners) do different things and work with different companies, sometimes the companies say they want to do something for the city," Mrs. Beard said. "It happens all the time. CH2MHill who contracts to work with our water department gives scholarships to all the high schools. And people come to us all the time for donations.

"So when the young man came to talk to us about affordable housing, I thought that would be good. They came in and talked to Main Street Augusta, which was interested in advancing and improving the downtown area. They said, 'If you work with us, we will invest $25,000 in the community.' That is not unusual. Main Street eventually said no. They thought houses should be luxury apartments. They did not go along with it. So they said, 'We will allow you to have that money to give to charities of your choice.'

"I thought that was great. They asked where to send the check. I said, 'Send it to the city of Augusta.' At that time, the Augusta Youth Center was having problems. We decided to give $5,000 to the youth center. I presented $5,000 to Augusta Youth Center at one of the commission meetings. The other commissioners were not pleased. Making these donations made me look good, and not them. They said those funds should be sent back, and they directed them to be sent back.

"Don (Grantham) said, 'What about the $5,000 to the Youth Center?' Somebody said, 'We'll never get that back.' We didn't go back and try to recapture that money."

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: "OK, so I'm going to say time went on, went on, and that was the end of that," Mrs. Beard continued. "Then there was a young lady in the water department that needed bariatric surgery. The insurance company had told her they would pay for the operation. Then we changed from United Health Care to Blue Cross Blue Shield. She went for a year and a half or more, and they would not pay for that operation. So I went into HR and talked to them about it.

"She was trying to raise $20,000. She was in critical condition. I mean, it was unbelievable. She was going to the hospital emergency room. She couldn't breathe. She had to wear an oxygen tank.

"I think somehow I got with Fred and was talking, and he said that money hadn't been sent back. We called Mr. (Tom) Gallagher and mentioned we had been told to send the money back and asked if he would mind if we used it for her operation. And he said, 'No.'

"So we did it, and a life was saved. I don't have any regrets. In itself, it is a wonderful story. By the way, the checks weren't in my name, ever."

Mr. Russell signed off on sending the $20,000 back 17 months after the vote, according to city records.

So now, Mrs. Beard has become the focus of a local and federal investigation, which I believe is a bunch of hooey, in addition to being a monumental waste of time and law enforcement resources because even if she were to be indicted, no Richmond County jury would ever find her guilty.

She said he said. He said she said : Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick and I have agreed to disagree about a conversation we had several weeks ago during which I asked him who paid for a cookout lunch he held for his employees and others this summer in North Augusta. People were talking about why the event was held outside Richmond County and why the city paid for it. So I called on Mr. Kendrick and, as I recall the conversation, I asked him who paid for the picnic, and he told me he did out of his own pocket. Weeks later, I learned that the city paid $1,165 for food and supplies, so I called Mr. Kendrick last week and asked him why he told me he'd paid for the picnic when he hadn't, and he said he was referring to the rent on the facility, Riverview Park Activities Center, not the food. He said I didn't ask him who paid for the picnic, that I only asked him who paid to rent the center.

Going Green (backs that is): While the tax commissioner doesn't seem to be too concerned about eating up taxpayer money, Augusta commissioners have become more concerned about burning it up.

This time last year, six commissioners had burned $7,870.62 worth of city gasoline. Commissioner Corey Johnson was leading the way with $2,836.92 worth, barely ahead of Commissioner Alvin Mason's $2,204.

This year, all six have used only $2,634,97 worth of city gasoline. Mr. Johnson has reduced his octane use to $818.06, while Mr. Mason has used a mere $92.76 worth.

Commissioner Calvin Holland has burned only $338.28 worth; Mr. Grantham $182.92. Only Mrs. Beard and Jimmy Smith are doing about the same as last year.

Aren't County Attorneys Supposed to Keep Us Out of Trouble? But who knows how much taxpayer money city attorney Chiquita Johnson spent trying to prevent former administrative assistant Meschery Powell from collecting $3,000 in back pay that both the city's human resources officials and the U.S. Department of Labor said was due her? Certainly more than the $3,000 they'll have to pay her anyway. After Ms. Johnson refused to pay Ms. Powell, she filed suit in Richmond County Civil and Magistrate Court. Ms. Johnson hired a $225-an-hour lawyer to represent her, but Judge William D. Jennings III agreed with the previous two opinions last week and awarded her a $3,000 judgment. The judge, however, determined Ms. Johnson could not be sued on an individual basis for $10,555 more of Ms. Powell's claims for damages and attorney fees.

Life After Death: Faye Reeves of Thomson is 67 but living the life of a young mother with two children to get off to school, to soccer practice afterward, home to do homework and then to bed. Mrs. Reeves doesn't complain though. Caring for her grandchildren, Hannah Neville, 12, and Joseph Standridge, 9, is her life.

The morning of Feb. 28, 2001, Mrs. Reeves went next door to find out why the children's mother, 35-year-old Robin Reeves, had not gone to work and found her slashed to death in the hallway of her Gordon Street home in Thomson. Baby Joseph was still in his crib.

This horrifying crime has never been solved, and every year on the anniversary of her death, a candlelight vigil is held in front of the house where Robin was killed.

Gary Nicholson, special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Thomson office, said agents are still actively seeking information in the case while Ms. Reeves lives for two.

Contact Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.

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