State Auditor investigating Oktibbeha County officials

Oktibbeha County Courthouse (courtesy)
By: 
Logan Kirkland
Staff Writer

The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors is currently under investigation by the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor for giving away county property free of charge.

In a document obtained by the Starkville Daily News, the State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office sent a letter to CNA Surety, the bonding agency for the County Road Manager Fred Hal Baggett, stating an investigation is being conducted due to the "unlawful loss of public funds.”

The Starkville Daily News confirmed through the bonding agency, Western Surety Company, that a letter was sent both to Baggett and County Administrator Emily Garrard.

"If this company is required to make any payment on your behalf, we will be entitled to reimbursement from you," the bonding agency said in the letter. "We would appreciate an explanation as to what the problem is and whether you are able to resolve the issue without involving the bond."

The response was asked to be submitted prior to April 30. If the response was not filed, the company could consider the cancellation of the bond.

When the Starkville Daily News filed a public records request for the letter sent by Western Surety Company, which was stamped as filed by the Oktibbeha County Chancery Clerk, the newspaper was told by Garrard "I cannot give you a document I do not officially have."

The public records request was submitted after there was no record in Chancery Court of the document, even after confirmation through the bonding agency, and a stamped seal from the clerk’s office.

Oktibbeha County Chancery Clerk Sharon Livingston told the Starkville Daily News she had not seen the document, and was unaware of the document coming through her office.

Livingston said when her office stamps documents, they are stamped at the bottom of the page and are signed, while this document was stamped at the top right hand corner without a signature.

Shortly after the public record request was filed, District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller disclosed to the Starkville Daily News after being surprised by an email she received from Garrard saying "Did you give (The Starkville Daily) this information?"

FROM THE BEGINNING

The investigation began after the reconstruction of the condemned bridge located on Reed Road in the fall of 2017.

District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard made an agreement with Oktibbeha County resident Walt Starr to provide Starr with the leftover resources and components from the condemned bridge.

The components include about six military-grade panels and six iron I-beams. The estimated amount the panels are worth is approximately 10 cents per pound, totaling at an estimated amount of just under $2,800.

Starr, who currently has the bridge panels and iron on his property said Howard, who is his supervisor, came to him saying the bridge is condemned on Reed Road, and the county needs to work on the area.

Starr said Howard told him they needed to get on his property for the construction, and would need to get an easement.

Starr said he told Howard through this process, they would be tearing up his fire lane, fence and timber.

"(Howard) said 'what about compensation, what do you need for getting an easement?'" Starr said.

Starr said he noticed how old the bridge panels looked, and asked if the county would use them. Howard told him the county could not use them.

"I said I'll take the bridge panels and we'll call it even,” Starr said. "That's what it was, that's all it was."

As for the use of the bridge panels, Starr said he would likely lay them down in the creek beds on his land, to make it easier to maneuver throughout the property.

Starr said Howard told him he had talked to everyone at the board meeting, and he would be given the bridge panels because he had been cooperative by providing the easement.

"Then one day (Howard) calls me and says 'we've got a problem,'" Starr said. "He said one of the supervisors has got a burr on her saddle about something, and she's called the State Auditor's Office."

Starr said he was not aware this was something the county is not authorized to do, because when they initially spoke the first thing he asked concerned the legality of the exchange.

"I said ‘don't do anything under the table,’” Starr said. "Y'all make sure it's all cool, talk to the attorney and they did, and he told me they did, and they said it was all fine and all of a sudden it's not fine."

Starr said he doesn't want any money, he just wants the county to fix the areas they said they were going to fix, or they can pay $25,000 for all of the damage they did to his property.

"They want those bridge panels? Come get it and bring me a check," Starr said. "I don't care, I was trying to help them out."

He said because the county did not do its due diligence on whether providing the bridge components was legal, it hurts his reputation and business.

"You're the only person who has come here and talked to me about this," Starr said. "I don't like my name used as a pawn in whatever fight is going on inside that Board of Supervisors."

Starr said he thought it had all been handled, so the board, in his opinion, dropped the ball somewhere on the agreement that they had.

"They can't get their panels, they're on my property and I don't want them trespassing on it until this is settled," Starr said. "When they settle it, I'll get them access and they can fix my stuff and get them out of there. Until then, it's going to take a court order."

COUNTY RESPONSE

When the Starkville Daily News sat down with Howard to discuss the investigation, he said he was advised by the Board Attorney Rob Roberson not to comment while the investigation is ongoing, so as to not give the perception the county was attempting to influence the final decision.

Howard said once the investigation is complete, he would "gladly" sit down with the Starkville Daily News to provide a comment.

"I've advised all of the supervisors not to speak on this, because the bottom line is that while the state auditor is doing its investigation, I don't want (investigators) to feel like we are trying to influence it," Roberson said. "The information that I'm giving you is basically what they've told me."

Roberson said the county has presented a proposed plan and information to the auditors, and have cooperated with whatever information they've asked for.

"One of the things we've presented them was to reimburse the county in the amount that (the bridge components) would be at a salvaged level," Roberson said. "At this point (the auditors) had not given us a decision as to whether or not that's going to be acceptable."

Roberson said the investigation could be resolved in the next four weeks.

He said the auditors have had the county's information for the last couple of weeks, but the investigation will last "as long as it takes.”

As for how the investigation started, Roberson said it would appear whenever the bridge was condemned and needed to be redone, the county needed a place to put its equipment, as well as acquiring an easement.

"The thought was, I think, was to allow the components to be left on that property," Roberson said. "It would have been an even trade for the easement and the use of their property."

He said there was confusion concerning the possible existence of a board order set for the components, which there wasn't. He said regardless, the county can’t give away property at any time even with a board order.

"The reality was, I think there was some confusion at least with how that could be approached and what was done," Roberson said.

Roberson said once supervisors found out they made a mistake, and once the auditors contacted them, the county complied and provided the information requested by the State Auditor’s office.

Roberson said he is uncertain as to who contacted the State Auditor’s office, but investigators did receive an anonymous phone call about the exchange.

"Whenever you make a mistake, you have to admit your mistake and help get it straightened out," Roberson said.

When asked about the county having to pay money to Starr to retrieve the components, Roberson said even at this point, Starr does not own the bridge panels.

"Those bridge panels still belong to the county, I know that they're on his property, but the county could never let him have those bridge panels," Roberson said.

He said he understands where Starr is coming from in terms of wanting fairness, but he doesn't currently own them. Roberson said it is possible it could move into small legal action.

Roberson said through this process, he wants to protect Starr as well, because the county certainly doesn't want to throw any dispersion toward him, and the county needs to straighten this out.

"This is not Mr. Starr's fault," Roberson said. "We've just got to figure out what the outcome needs to be to make certain that this is taken care of."

CONSEQUENCES

As for the potential consequences of the investigation, Roberson said whoever is to blame could have to pay the fine administered by the auditors out of their own personal funds.

Roberson said Baggett, Howard and the supervisors could be to blame for this. Baggett could potentially be held responsible because his department transported the bridge components from the site, to the county shop, back to Starr’s property, according to the road manager’s report obtained by the Starkville Daily News.

He said the county has been cooperating, so there may just be a request that the property be returned, or the property amount be repaid.

Roberson said he doesn't expect to see any criminal charges brought forward, because there didn't seem to be an intent to defraud.

When asked about the status of the bond, Roberson said at this point, everything is on hold.

"My position in this is, we do not move until the State Auditor tells us to do something," Roberson said. "We've got to wait until the auditor gives us a go ahead in how to settle this."

Roberson said through this process, it's important the county be open and honest with both the public, and with the auditors.

"I don't want anybody to feel like we're trying to scapegoat, there was a mistake made,” Roberson said. "I think the mistake was an honest mistake, but it was a mistake nonetheless and now it's got to be fixed."

Category: