Law department bill raises ire

File/Staff
Chiquita Johnson lost a previous job after an investigation found she misused a credit card.

Troubled by what looks to be a pattern of excessive spending, Joe Jackson has become the second Augusta commissioner to state publicly that he'll vote to fire General Counsel Chiquita Johnson.

He said so Monday after learning that Augusta's Law Department ran up nearly $5,000 on a Sam's Club account this year, with purchases that included silk trees, paintings and lots of snacks.

According to finance records from Jan. 1 to Dec. 16, reviewed by The Augusta Chronicle under an open records request, the $4,897 spent by Ms. Johnson's department was the highest debt incurred on any account except the sheriff's office's Criminal Investigation Division and the Recreation & Parks Department, which has multiple Sam's Club cards to buy concessions for sale.

While CID employees purchased equipment that included cameras and video recorders, Ms. Johnson's Sam's Club card was used to buy office decorations, an air-cleansing system and sanitizers, candy and juices, sodas and coffee cake, a water cooler and two Keurig Ultimate Single Server Coffee Systems.

The Sam's Club card was also used for office supplies, including pens, file folders and a shredder.

Mr. Jackson said he's livid that a law department with a small staff was spending thousands of dollars on amenities while the rest of the city was pinching pennies. He said he has been more upset, though, to learn through his own research that Ms. Johnson has spent more than $60,000 for Atlanta law firm Freeman, Mathis & Gary to handle airport matters when the budget for that was $18,000.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "How do you fathom spending that kind of taxpayer money? She's pushed her envelope."

Ms. Johnson did not return a call seeking comment about her office expenses.

Charge cards have been a problem for her before. Nine months before she was hired by the city as a staff attorney -- 10 months before she became interim general counsel -- Ms. Johnson was fired effective Feb. 1, 2007, from the Georgia Department of Public Safety's Legal Services Division for misuse of her government-issued credit card and financial irresponsibility, according to records obtained by The Chronicle , also through the Georgia Open Records Act.

An internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety revealed that Ms. Johnson, then deputy director of legal services, used her American Express corporate card to buy items from the Home Shopping Network, grocery stores and pharmacies, restaurants and a women's clothing store.

The Public Safety investigation further concluded that Ms. Johnson was delinquent in paying the card's balances for six of 14 months examined. For two months no payment was made, according to the report. The late payments and nonpayments resulted in financial penalties.

The credit card was intended for Ms. Johnson's travel on government business, but, according to the investigative report, the majority of the charges were not incurred that way. Of the 134 charges, only 24 were for government travel expenses. And, the report notes, many of the purchases were made on days Ms. Johnson was not working.

The records obtained by The Chronicle did not include any protest or response from Ms. Johnson concerning the credit card use. There was a protest from her concerning a performance evaluation for 2004, where she contended her immediate supervisor treated her unfairly, forced her to work a grueling schedule and falsely accused her of excessive absences.

According to the records, Ms. Johnson's salary at the time was $74,285, plus expenses. She is earning $125,000 a year as Augusta's general counsel.

Background check

Her previous firing apparently never came up when Ms. Johnson was hired by the city, and why it didn't is something of a mystery. There's nothing in her employee file indicating references were checked or previous employers contacted.

City job applications have sections for applicants to disclose past places of employment, including reasons for leaving. However, on Ms. Johnson's application those sections are blank, with an attached résumé listing her work history, but not why she left each job.

Normally, all applicants have to fill out the forms in full, Human Resources analyst Ron Clark said.

According to her résumé, after leaving Public Safety on Feb. 1, 2007, Ms. Johnson went to work in May as an associate with the Deming, Parker, Hoffman, Green and Campbell law firm in Norcross, Ga.

The Augusta Commission hired her in October on a recommendation from a commission subcommittee, headed by J.R. Hatney, charged with finding a new in-house general counsel and staff attorney after the firing of former city attorney Eugene Jessup. Mr. Hatney said Monday that he never received any information about Ms. Johnson having been terminated from another job earlier that year and that checking her background was the personnel department's responsibility.

Human Resources Director Rod Powell, who wasn't with the city at the time, said the task was handled by employment manager Moses McCauley, who retired earlier this month. Mr. McCauley did not immediately return a message left at his home by The Chronicle on Tuesday, but Mr. Powell said that, troubled by the situation himself, he asked Mr. McCauley about it.

According to Mr. Powell, Mr. McCauley checked with Public Safety about Ms. Johnson and was told she left voluntarily.

Looking for answers

Public Safety personnel Director Dan Roach said he finds that odd. No agreement was made with Ms. Johnson to give her a positive reference, he said.

"I can't imagine why somebody would have said that," Mr. Roach said of the "left voluntarily" statement.

Someone who calls his office to check out a former employee is told dates of employment, title held and salary when the employee left. Mr. Roach said he doesn't disclose anything else without a waiver from the employee. There's no document in Ms. Johnson's file indicating that someone from Augusta wanted more details.

But now Ms. Johnson's bosses on the Augusta Commission want some answers, starting with the Sam's Club spending.

"I do think it's a little excessive," Commissioner Corey Johnson said. "We'd have to look into it a little more in-depth to see the reason for it."

Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason also said the spending seems questionable.

"I'm not sure exactly what the reason for that would be," he said, "but I'm interested in finding out."

City Administrator Fred Russell said he wasn't as concerned with what Ms. Johnson purchased as he is with the total amount, which exceeded spending in other city offices by a large margin.

The city doesn't have a set policy for what a department head can purchase at Sam's Club, but common sense should be expected, Mr. Russell said. Individuals are supposed to be responsible.

After Procurement Department Director Geri Sams questioned the recreation department's use of Sam's Club accounts in October 2006, a policy was initiated that requires her to approve all purchases at the store before payments are made. Ms. Sams did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Calls for change

Earlier this month, Commissioner Don Grantham was the first to say Augusta needs a new city attorney after Ms. Johnson floated proposals at the Dec. 15 meeting to change the city charter to beef up Law Department powers and to put possibly illegal restrictions on the news media.

In August, she raised eyebrows when the commission had to take $600,000 out of contingency and reserve funds so the Law Department could keep paying outside attorneys through the end of the year. The department had already spent $450,000, exhausting its legal fees budget, which Ms. Johnson blamed on "recent changes in federal law" and "a rise in countywide litigation." She also contended that many of the outside firms were hired by other city departments, such as the sheriff's office.

Commissioner Joe Bowles, among the most fiscally conservative members of the board, said he wouldn't make any comment on Ms. Johnson.

Asked whether he would vote to fire her, Corey Johnson said he can't say right now. "It may be best for her to resign," he said.

Reach Sandy Hodson and Johnny Edwards at (706) 724-0851.

SAM'S CLUB CHARGES

Total Sam's Club card bills, by department billing categories, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 16, excluding the Recreation & Parks Department, which has multiple cards for concession purchases and items for children and senior citizen programs:

Criminal Investigation Division $8,504

Law Department $4,897

Animal Services $4,357

Walton Way jail $1,879

Tax commissioner $1,760

Phinizy jail $1,186

Police training $1,139

Airport administration $822

Human Resources $775

Tag office $749

Procurement $542

Air/fire rescue $497

Outside legal $415

Clerk of commission $379

Water and sewer administration $372

Building Maintenance $294

Procurement print shop $287

Road patrol $259

Information technology $247

Fugitive squad $238

Sheriff's office records $223

Traffic engineer $199

Facilities management $170

Sheriff's office administration $122

Sheriff's narcotics division $90

Fire Department administration $15

Risk Management $15

Total $30,432