The Marble Palace is still in total disbelief over longtime Augusta Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson’s abrupt resignation following allegations that he allowed an employee, on county time, to leave work with the full knowledge that this retiring employee was planning on towing a piece of city-owned excavating equipment for use on private land in Lincoln County.
Suddenly, everyone is up in arms over what really happened with the city equipment in Lincoln County in mid-March.
Augusta commissioners are outraged and pointing fingers at everyone from Johnson to City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson.
There are calls for a full investigation of the incident and possibly criminal charges.
One can’t help but recall a similar incident that occurred almost two decades ago.
It was a 1997 scandal nicknamed “Gravelgate” that resulted in former Landfill Operations Manager Rob Watson being prosecuted for hauling $70 worth of gravel to the driveway of his boss’s then-fiancé.
The boss, former landfill director David Smith, was removed from his director’s position, but managed to hang onto a job with the city.
Here’s how the scandal went down:
On Oct. 3, 1997, former Landfill Operations Manager Rob Watson delivered two loads of gravel on a county front end loader down to the private residence of another county employee. His actions opened the landfill up to an extensive criminal investigation that lasted more than four months.
That investigation conducted by the sheriff’s office uncovered that waste wasn’t the only thing rotten at the landfill.
Back in 1997, Watson faced two charges: making false statement to law enforcement and theft by taking of government property, which included the improper use of county equipment and the fuel contained within the front end loader.
What was Watson’s explanation for his actions?
He summed it up in four words, “It was common practice.”
Watson claimed he was simply following the example of others working at the landfill.
He insisted that David Smith, the former landfill director who was removed from his position by then-County Administrator Randy Oliver, instructed him to make sure that gravel was placed in the driveway of Smith’s then-fiancé.
“I did what my boss told me to do,” Watson told the Metro Spirit back in 1998 prior to his hearing. “That’s what I did despite David Smith’s emphatic denial of it, because I was afraid of losing my job.”
In his testimony, Smith denied directing Watson to move the gravel to anyone’s driveway.
However, the investigation alleged Smith asked Watson to remind Dan Maas of Stevens Well Drilling, an out-of-state private company that had installed a pipeline around the landfill, to use the excess gravel to fill a dip in his then-fiancé’s driveway.
Maas stated he was happy to supply the gravel but only had a Bobcat loader on hand. So, Watson used a front end loader to deliver the gravel, while Maas was in the fiancé’s driveway on his company’s Bobcoat loader leveling the stone.
Once the allegations arose, Watson admitted that he had made a terrible mistake.
On Oct. 17, 1997, Watson attempted to cover up his use of the county front end loader by lying during his first interview with investigators. He also provided the then-Equal Opportunity Office Director Brenda Byrd-Pelaez with a false fax from Maas.
The fax stated, “Only Stevens Drilling equipment and materials were used.”
A few days later, on Oct. 28, Watson was again interviewed by investigators and admitted he had lied.
Watson explained he lied because he was not only afraid for his job, but also his family. He felt there were a lot of “politics” tied to the situation.
Watson insisted that he didn’t pressure Dan Maas to lie for him.
“I just said, ‘There have been some charges made that gravel was stolen from the landfill and that it was illegally placed in this girl’s driveway and they’d like a statement from you about that,’” Watson said, however, he later acknowledged that he might have slightly encouraged Maas to help him out. “I might have said that it would look bad for me if the county’s equipment was involved.”
But what was even more discouraging than $70 worth of gravel used on Smith’s then-fiancé’s driveway was that this appeared to be a fairly common practice in the county back in the late 1990s.
During the investigation, Smith admitted that he had supplied dirt “thousands of times” when working for Richmond County Road and Bridges, a former county department.
When Smith was specifically asked if he had authorized the delivery of any gravel or dirt to private entities outside of Richmond County government, Smith said he had.
When asked for specific names, he said he couldn’t remember them all.
“I can’t name those. Good God. You’d have to go back and dig up that,” Smith said. “That went on every day.”
Investigators for the sheriff’s office were shocked.
“Every day?” an investigator asked Smith.
“Every day,” Smith repeated.
The investigation had an impact on almost every aspect of the local government including the Augusta Commission, the administrator’s office and the public works department.
And much like City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson currently being criticized for her role in investigating the incident involving Mark Johnson, then-County Administrator Randy Oliver took some heat during the “Gravelgate” investigation.
Investigators from the sheriff’s office accused Oliver of conducting a criminal investigation, in which he had no authority to do.
“No. I was solely looking at it from a personnel matter,” Oliver told the investigators in 1997. “You know, maybe in hindsight, it should have been (investigated solely by the sheriff’s office). There’s various issues that come up as administrator that require administrative action that perhaps needs to be done with law enforcement.”
Oliver provided two examples of such cases. One was the misuse of $50,000 for River Race Augusta and the other was when the Indigent Defense Committee paid salaries retroactively without the commission’s consent in the late 1990s.
The investigator told Oliver that his actions concerning the gravel incident may have jeopardized their criminal investigation.
“It’s not my intent to in anyway impede an investigation,” Oliver said. “I want to work as closely as I can with law enforcement. I sense that I’ve stepped on your toes and I didn’t mean to do that.”
In the end, the “Gravelgate” investigation took a grueling four months, and on the surface one couldn’t help but ask: This is all over a couple of loads of gravel?
But Watson believed it wasn’t over just gravel.
In describing the investigation, Watson said the word “witch hunt” came to mind.
“I really felt David (Smith) was the object of their investigation and once they were unable to pin something on him, they settled for a lesser fish. Me,” Watson said. “Because I’m just a small cog in the wheel. I’m the little guy left holding the bag.”
Now, two decades later, Augusta’s landfill is once again facing a scandal that could impact several departments within the county and hurt the city’s image.
When will they ever learn?