Printed underneath Columbia County’s logo is the slogan: “A Community of Pride, A County of Vision and Endless Opportunities.”
Just below the slogan are five words written in all-caps: Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Dedication and Excellence.
Despite these lofty pledges to its citizens, Columbia County is beginning to air its dirty laundry in public and many residents don’t like what they are smelling.
Two major scandals in Columbia County were exposed last week: One involves Columbia County Board of Education member Mike Sleeper and the troubling questions surrounding his military history. The other is the abrupt resignation of longtime EMA Director Pam Tucker.
In her letter of resignation, Tucker did not mince words about why she leaving the job she has loved for almost two decades.
“During the last few years, I have endured a hostile work environment by the administrator, who has an on-going deliberate campaign to force me out of my job,” Tucker wrote in her Jan. 31 letter of resignation, referring to County Administrator Scott Johnson. “Time and time again, I have tried to be strong and keep focused on my job since that is my passion and has been for a large part of my life. The latest of many verbal attacks on me is more than I can suffer.”
Chances are, Johnson didn’t see that one coming. An employee in Columbia County actually speaking her mind?
But before discussing Tucker’s departure and the reasons surrounding her resignation, let’s look at the accusations against BOE member Mike Sleeper, who also happens to be the son-in-law of Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
On Jan. 27, a website called “This Ain’t Hell: But you can see it from here,” posted a blog written by Dave Hardin called “Michael Sleeper, Fake Ranger.”
This particular website reviews accusations of stolen valor across this country.
“Someone sent us Mike Sleeper,” the blog begins. “He has a cool man cave in his garage. Apparently he collects campaign memorabilia…including his own. We have reports of him claiming to have been deployed to Iraq during Desert Storm. Mike also likes to tell people he was a Ranger with the 75th Ranger Regiment during conversations. He backs up those kind of claims with pictures on his FB profile.”
The website, thisainthell.us, shows one of Sleeper’s past profile pictures was the shield, or coat of arms, of the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment.
“It sounds like some actual Desert Storm veterans found discrepancies in his stories,” Hardin wrote. “Evidently, he is on the School Board in Columbia County, GA and according to his twitter account he also likes to play trivia games.”
Back in 2009, Sleeper began hosting “Trivia with Mike Sleeper” at multiple locations around the CSRA, such as Carolina Ale House and The Pizza Joint.
“We thought a little Trivia of our own would be nice,” Hardin wrote, “so we ordered his official records through a FOIA request.”
Posted on the blog is a copy of document titled, “Information Releasable Under the Freedom of Information Act.”
It appears to be the military record of “Michael Norman Sleeper.”
The document states that Sleeper’s dates of active duty service are from Aug. 13, 1985 to Oct. 25, 1988.
It indicates Sleeper was discharged at the rank of Private. The document also states he was an infantryman in Alaska from Jan. 24, 1986 to October 25, 1988.
The document adds, “No record of service beyond 1988.”
“That one page alone tells us all we need to know,” Hardin wrote in his blog.
“Not a Ranger. No deployment to Desert Storm and he was discharged after a few years as a Private. He spent his time in Alaska as an 11B Grunt and he was not a Ranger with the 75th Ranger Regiment. His only award listed is the Army Service Ribbon. It appears the Army got tired of dealing with Pvt. Sleeper and sent him back home early.”
The blog demands that Sleeper address these questions surrounding his military record.
“Private Sleeper should probably come clean with some people who are under a false impression that he is something that he is not,” Hardin wrote. “Particularly the kids in his school district.”
The blog was later updated after Sleeper allegedly contacted Hardin to discuss his military record.
“Mike Sleeper called me. We had a frank conversation. He has an opportunity to come forward and set the record straight,” Hardin wrote. “Rarely do we post all the information we have on a case in order to give people an opportunity to man up. Mike is insistent that he served with the 75th for a period of time. That very well could be, but its not in his official records we were provided. What is a fact is Mike was never a Ranger.”
After reviewing the records provided by Hardin, the Metro Spirit immediately contacted Sleeper to discuss the allegations against him.
While Sleeper insists that he wants to fully discuss his military background and set the record straight and prove that he hasn’t been lying, he said he couldn’t at this time.
“I recognize there are shortcomings in the military documentation of my military history and I’m attempting to have them corrected,” Sleeper said, adding that it may take several weeks for the documents to be corrected. “So I am not making any public statements now.”
While Sleeper may not be discussing the matter, many other people are talking about these accusations, both locally and across the country.
“It appears that Mr. Sleeper has embellished his military career and has upset many veterans and local residents,” John Slickmeyer wrote in an email to the Metro Spirit this week. “Mr. Sleeper had a mediocre enlistment in the United States Army in the 80’s yet claims to have been a tabbed Army Ranger and a deployment during Operation Desert Storm (90’s). His records do not support this claim.”
Slickmeyer, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 1992 and U.S. Army National Guard from 1992 to 1996, acknowledged that he isn’t from Columbia County or even the state of Georgia, but he still felt that these questions regarding Sleeper should be addressed.
“I have brought this to the attention of the CCBOE and has fell on deaf ears… Mr. Sleeper is an elected official making decisions for children in Columbia County, his behavior should be above reproach,” he wrote.
“If Mr. Sleeper can produce official documents supporting his claims, the veteran community would be the first to apologize.
It is only fair to the local community, that Mr. Sleeper address these claims in a public forum so they may be straightened out.”
Herb Whittington, a resident of Cottonwood, Ala., also contacted the Metro Spirit regarding the allegations against Sleeper.
As a veteran, Whittington said he was “deeply offended by military phonies.”
“We do NOT seek or find joy in exposing such frauds,” Whittington wrote in an email to the Metro Spirit. “We do get a certain amount of satisfaction once the gullible public has become aware of such a liar’s own words and bovine excrement stories which make the public rounds.”
Whether or not Sleeper served as an Army Ranger needs to be addressed because these accusations are leading to further questions about Sleeper’s military history and educational background.
In the past, Sleeper has told other members of the media that he is a former Army Ranger.
“Sleeper, an Evans High School graduate, who served as an Army Ranger before earning degrees at Augusta State University and the University of Georgia, said he too is aware of the county’s changing demographics,” The Columbia County News-Times reported in 2014.
In a 2011 press release from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office regarding the new members of his Education Advisory Board, the bio of Sleeper states, “He graduated from the Georgia public school system and enlisted in the Army serving with the 1/75th Airborne Ranger Regiment. He went on to do his undergraduate work in Computer Science at Augusta State University and graduate work in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Georgia.”
As a member of the Columbia County Board of Education, Sleeper encourages Columbia County students to “lead by example.”
If that’s the case, Sleeper should take his own advice and publicly address these accusations against him as soon as possible.
Disaster in Columbia County’s EMA
While the board of education is grappling with its own controversy surrounding the allegations against Sleeper, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners have a plate full of problems of its own.
On Friday, Feb. 3, EMA Director Pam Tucker turned in her keys and walked away from a job that she has loved for the past 18 years, stating that Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson had created a “hostile work environment” for her.
“As a professional, hard-working employee who truly cares about the citizens of Columbia County, I deserve much better than to be berated repeatedly by the administrator,”
Tucker wrote in her Jan. 31 resignation letter. “I have had my job responsibilities slowly stripped away — one by one — because the administrator has been dishonest with the commissioners in regard to my leadership. I don’t know what his ultimate plan was, but I do know that my leadership has greatly benefited our community and the commissioners in countless ways.
The administrator’s continuous harsh treatment of me has left me demoralized, frustrated, and dispirited.”
Tucker was clearly determined not to walk away quietly.
“I request that I be given my contractual severance pay of eight month’s salary, plus my unused PTO hours,” Tucker wrote. “I also request that my catastrophic leave of 506 hours be paid to me since my intention was to work for seven more years and three months so that I would be eligible for the time I earned early in my career and did not abuse as sick leave.”
Tucker’s final statement in her resignation letter says it all.
“I am done,” she simply wrote.
And what was the Columbia County Board of Commissioners’ response to this stunning announcement by one of the most respected and beloved department directors in the county?
Instead of the commissioners publicly addressing Tucker’s resignation, Public Relations Manager Cassidy Harris issued a press release on Feb. 1 stating that the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, through Chairman Ron Cross, had decided to bring in a neutral, third party to perform an “internal investigation” into the matter.
“The request for this investigation has been submitted to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office with the understanding that the Internal Affairs Division will be handling everything from this point forward,” the press release stated. “They are speaking with all the parties involved. The investigation will address the allegations of a hostile work environment as stated from Ms. Pamela Tucker in her resignation letter along with allegation made in (EMA Deputy Director) Rusty Welsh’s resignation.”
Before Welsh resigned in January, he also claimed to have experienced “intolerable working conditions.”
But Welsh’s complaints weren’t against Johnson. They were against Tucker.
In a Dec. 26, 2016, letter to Johnson, Welsh complained that he was required to perform over-the-top duties such as maintain an “on call” status at all times including nights, weekends and holidays; he was expected to ask permission to leave town, even during non-working hours and especially during holidays; and he was expected to monitor and reply to email and text messages multiple times within the hour during both non-working and working hours.
He also accused Tucker of “continuous controlling, manipulative, condescending, arrogant, disrespectful, hypocritical and juvenile behavior.”
As a result of Tucker’s claims regarding Johnson and Welsh’s accusations against Tucker, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners thought it would be best to get the sheriff’s office involved in the internal investigation.
Only a few days after submitting her Jan. 31 resignation letter to Cross and providing the county with the required 30-day notice, Tucker announced that her last day would be Friday, Feb. 3.
It was a whole month sooner than expected, but considering Tucker’s blistering remarks regarding Johnson, it wasn’t surprising.
Johnson was likely very happy to waive the 30-day notice and allow Tucker to leave as soon as possible.
So, on Friday, Feb. 3, Tucker turned in her keys and walked away from her position as EMA director.
On the same day, she announced that Columbia County EMA’s Facebook page, which was well known for quickly alerting residents to any potential dangers in the area, would also be taken down.
“This page is connected to my personal pages,” Tucker posted, “so it is scheduled for deletion in a few days.”
The public was in shock and the county saw an immediate outpouring of love and support for Tucker following her resignation.
“Truly sorry things went the way they did,” one woman posted on Columbia County EMA’s Facebook page. “We will miss you! I hope your future is fruitful and successful. Good luck!!”
Another man posted, “Please don’t leave your shoes, they can never be filled.”
Others were clearly upset by Johnson’s alleged verbal attacks and poor treatment of Tucker.
“You are a true professional. It takes a lot of courage to speak out,” one woman posted. “There are better things ahead for you. Thank you for a job well done. You will be missed.”
Walking Away from Columbia County
Of course, this isn’t the first time a longtime department head suddenly walked away from their position.
Back in 2015, Barry Smith, Columbia County’s director of Community and Leisure Services, submitted his resignation letter after more than a decade on the job.
Smith’s resignation letter was literally one sentence long.
“Effective July 27, 2015, I hereby submit my resignation as Director of Community & Leisure Services with Columbia County, GA to pursue other professional opportunities,” stated the July 27, 2015 letter to County Administrator Scott Johnson.
That’s all it said.
Smith returned from a three-day vacation and resigned, effective immediately.
No notice. No nothing.
According to Johnson, that was the end of the story.
“Barry had not been disciplined prior to his resignation,” Johnson said in a statement provided to the Metro Spirit by the county’s public relations manager.
In fact, in the most recent evaluation of Smith that was completed on Nov. 7, 2014, Johnson gave Smith an overall score of 4.15 out of 5. Any score that is 4 or above is considered a “valued performer.”
In his comments about Smith, Johnson said he was an “effective manager” that routinely “meets or exceeds organizational goals and objectives.”
Smith was hired by Columbia County in April of 2003. His salary at the time of his resignation was $108,794, according to Johnson.
But Smith simply walked away. He also did not return messages from the Metro Spirit seeking comment.
As a result, there was a great deal of speculation about what caused this department head, who had been on the job for more than 12 years, to abruptly leave.
County Administrator Scott Johnson also did not provide any additional details regarding Smith’s resignation.
“Columbia County’s practice usually does not discuss details of employee resignations,” Johnson said in a statement to the Metro Spirit. “It is entirely up to the employee to disclose his or her reason for resignation.”
But a lot of people throughout the country were scratching their heads over Smith’s departure because he was always an extremely loyal employee.
For example, while serving as Savannah’s park and tree director, Smith received a great deal of praise and, therefore, it was a surprise to some city leaders in Savannah when Smith resigned from his position there in 2003.
He had been on the job in Savannah for less than two years.
Rumor was that he was having issues with his boss at the time, Facilities Maintenance Director Billy Jones.
In fact, Don Gardner, who served as the city’s park and tree director for 16 years prior to Smith accepting the position, apparently resigned out of dissatisfaction with his superiors, specifically Billy Jones, according to a Savannah Morning News article.
“This will continue to happen until he (Billy Jones) gets what he wants, and I could make a good argument that the true objective is to tear down Park and Tree,” Gardner told the Savannah paper in 2003, referring to his former boss, Billy Jones. “He is the problem, and it can’t be ignored any longer. The world community ignored Saddam Hussein for decades and things didn’t get any better. The parallel is unfortunate, but a fair one.”
So Smith’s predecessor in Savannah was actually comparing this Billy Jones guy to Saddam Hussein.
That’s pretty bad.
But did Smith just pack his bags and immediately tender his resignation after being hired as Columbia County’s director of Community and Leisure Services in April 2003?
No. He gave ol’ Saddam his two-weeks notice.
So, if Smith was willing to give a Saddam Hussein-like boss two-weeks notice in Savannah, what is that saying about County Administrator Scott Johnson and his leadership in Columbia County that he was given absolutely no notice by Smith when he resigned?
What kind of boss is Scott Johnson?
The truth is, there seems to be a pattern of sudden departure by a department director in Columbia County in recent years.
In October 2013, Columbia County experienced another abrupt resignation by a longtime employee.
Richard Harmon, the director of Columbia County’s Development Services Division, who had been with the county since 1999, suddenly resigned without a word to the shock of many throughout the county.
Not long after joining Columbia County’s government in 1999, Harmon led the charge in maintaining the construction standards and code enforcement in a county that has exploded in growth.
But during the county’s reorganization a few years ago, Harmon was stripped of some of his duties. County leaders insisted that the reason for the restructuring was simply because Harmon had too much on his plate.
The county would run more efficiently if the workload was divvied up, Johnson claimed.
Following Harmon’s sudden resignation, Johnson told the Columbia County News-Times that the county was simply moving in a different direction.
“As a result of our restructuring of departments with an emphasis on how we deal with development, we’ve had a change in philosophy on how we approached those issues,” Johnson told the newspaper. “We had a meeting with Richard on several items and (his resignation) was a result of that meeting.”
Harmon, like Smith, never publicly addressed the reason for his sudden resignation.
But, if you want to talk about poor treatment by a county employee, look no further than than the former Tax Commissioner’s office.
When everything finally seemed to be settling down in the Columbia County after Harmon’s departure, one of the biggest controversies the county has ever seen blew up in its face.
Longtime Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen was found to be improperly profiting from tax collection contracts with Harlem and Grovetown.
The controversy was devastating for Columbia County because Allen, along with her husband, then District 3 Commissioner Charles Allen, had served in public office for a total of more than four decades.
Two days before Christmas in 2013, Columbia County commissioners sent a letter to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asking him to look into alleged misconduct by Kay Allen, specifically the accusation that she had personally profited from the tax collection contracts.
“The checks for these fees were written to Columbia County Tax Commissioner attention Kay Allen, but were deposited into her personal account,” the letter to the governor stated. “Both municipalities assumed the payments to the Tax Commissioner were going to the governing authority according to law.”
This was earth-shattering news for Columbia County.
These allegations all came about after former Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson, who had worked for the department for 15 years, became the whistleblower after he was fired by Allen in October of 2013.
Dwight Johnson, who met with the FBI, also discussed Kay Allen’s treatment of him as an employee.
He insisted that soon after he made the mistake of telling Kay Allen that he planned on running for tax commissioner in 2016, his relationship with his longtime boss quickly deteriorated.
“She began putting me through a lot of abuse. She started giving me these menial tasks to do,” Dwight Johnson said of Kay Allen, adding that he was frequently told to dump the trash, pick up food for the office and unload 28-pound boxes filled with the tag shipments. “I didn’t feel like I was above doing any of that, but I was like, ‘You are paying me almost $37 an hour to unload the truck?’”
But Dwight Johnson, who was making $78,000 a year, said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a bizarre request Allen made to him in October 2013, only days before he was terminated from his position.
“She told me to report to Kroger,” he told the Metro Spirit, in all seriousness. “I asked her, ‘Mrs. Allen, are you crazy?’ And she said, ‘I might be.’ She said, ‘I want you to report to Kroger. I want you to wear your work clothes and walk around the store for eight hours.’”
Dwight Johnson could not believe his ears. But he said he felt like he didn’t have any other choice but to follow his boss’ directions.
And yet, Dwight Johnson was still later fired from his position.
So how did Columbia County handle this mess?
In March 2014, Columbia County Board of Commissioners and attorneys for Kay Allen struck a deal behind closed doors.
Kay Allen, along with her husband Commissioner Charles Allen, both agreed to resign or “retire” from their positions effective immediately.
Along with their resignations, the Allens agreed to a settlement with the county that required Kay Allen to return half of the more than $160,000 in fees she collected from Harlem and Grovetown.
In return, Kay Allen was allowed retire with her state benefits and retirement package intact.
Isn’t it amazing how scandals are swept under the rug in Columbia County?
So, once again, local residents are faced with a question: Is this how you want your local government agencies to operate?
Whether it is an elected official or a county employee who is stealing money, creating a hostile work environment or misrepresenting their military history, that shouldn’t be something that is easily dismissed.
Commissioners need to speak up, Board of Education members should ask questions and the public needs to demand answers.
Otherwise, the scandals will continue in Columbia County for many years to come.