While the national press is calling 2014 the “Year of the Rear” because the public couldn’t escape celebrities such as Kim Kardashian showing off their… let’s just say, assets, Augusta proved it has some pretty spectacular jackasses as well.
Whether it was damaging scandals, contentious elections, fraudulent scams, devastating ice storms or abrupt resignations, 2014 was anything but boring.
Augusta can only hope that 2015 brings brighter days ahead.
The Jokes of January
For many Augustans, it’s hard to believe that this year started with the mind-boggling announcement that fired City Administrator Fred Russell was considering a run for mayor.
Many people thought it was a bad joke considering, if Russell managed to get elected, he would be forced to work with many of the Augusta commissioners who voted to fire him from the position that he held for almost a decade.
Fortunately, by early February, Russell reconsidered his plans and announced on the Fatz and Cher Morning Show that he has changed his mind about running for mayor for “personal reasons.”
Many folks around town have speculated those “personal reasons” have a lot more to do with dirt that someone managed to dig up on him. But, either way, Russell made the wise decision to bow out of the race.
The fine folks in Columbia County also had a rough start to 2014. Everyone was still reeling from the fact that the long-time tax commissioner Kay Allen was accused of misconduct by collecting fees from municipalities contrary to law. Specifically, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners discovered that Allen had contracted with the cities of Grovetown and Harlem to collect a fee which she kept as personal compensation.
By law, that money should have been given to the county.
Allen was accused of fleecing the taxpayers out of more than $150,000.
The public was not only outraged that Allen was still in office after the scandal broke, but also that her husband, Columbia County Commissioner Charles Allen Jr., still retained his District 3 seat.
After all, the FBI was conducting a joint investigation with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office at the time to find out whether his wife had been improperly profiting from contracts with Harlem and Grovetown.
And yet, Charles Allen was still attending legal meetings discussing personnel matters and voting on financial issues facing the county.
Kay and Charles Allen were one household and, therefore, many in the public demanded that they both be forced to step down.
That wish came true.
By early March, it was all over.
In a deal negotiated behind closed doors with the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, the Allens both agreed to resign from their positions.
With that, the Allens were no longer a political powerhouse in Columbia County.
Ironically, the whistleblower who helped take Kay Allen down, former Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson, also had a pretty rough year.
Johnson, an employee of the tax commissioner’s office for about 15 years, met with the FBI after he was fired by Kay Allen in October 2013.
He claimed that his relationship with Kay Allen began deteriorating after he admitted to her that he was planning on running for the tax commissioner’s seat in 2016.
Not long after the misconduct allegations against Kay Allen came to light, Johnson found himself embroiled in a bitter feud with Columbia County Tag Office Clerk Diane Pittman Chiera.
In late January of this year, Chiera filed an incident report with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office claiming that Johnson entered the tag office, threatened her job and made a “slashing motion to his throat” after the threat.
However, a 21-minute surveillance video inside the tag office showed otherwise. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office closed the case because there was no visual proof of Johnson making any threatening motions.
But by the time Kay Allen resigned in March, it was clear that Johnson had made some serious enemies inside the tag office.
In the end, Johnson decided not to run for his dream job as tax commissioner in Columbia County and Wayne Bridges, a certified public accountant, was elected to the position just last month.
Speaking of elections, local builder Jim Bartley grabbed headlines this year after announcing he was running against Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
In February, Bartley told the Metro Spirit he was running against Cross to shine light on some of the county’s festering problems.
One thing was certain, Bartley was definitely not interested in holding his tongue… on anything.
“The truth is, you are going to have to kill me to make me shut my mouth,” Jim Bartley told the Metro Spirit in February. “Is that wrong? I don’t think so because I have to live with myself.”
Known throughout Columbia County’s government as the man with an open records request always in his hand, Bartley was clearly proud of the fact that he searched for the truth in a county that seemed more comfortable operating behind closed doors rather than in front of its citizens.
“I realize if I run for office, my critics are going to come at me with everything they’ve got,” Bartley said in February. “But this is a little county commission. There ain’t nobody who has got enough money in this county to buy me. I have way too much money for that. Somebody can’t buy me to look the other way. No way.”
But money couldn’t buy Bartley the election, either.
Cross defeated Bartley in the Republican primary this past May by receiving 60 percent of the total votes cast.
The Scams of February
February was also the month of Augusta’s horrendous ice storm that caused much of the CSRA to suffer through several days without power and experience significant property damage due to falling trees and limbs.
In an attempt to warn the public about the dangers of hiring workers who are not licensed, insured or bonded, the Metro Spirit spoke with some of the best arborists in business about what citizens needed to know before hiring crews to clear their fallen branches.
“If they get hurt or if they damage the property, the insurance may not cover it,” said Steve Johnston, vice president and Southeast Division Manger for the Bartlett Tree Experts, a company which has been around for more than 100 years and has offices in 29 states. “If they say they are insured, you want to make sure the policy is still active.”
John Frederickson, who owns Tree Works Inc. in Decatur, Ga., and is a certified arborist, told the paper that even if landscapers tell homeowners they are insured, residents need to make sure the company has workers’ compensation.
“In this business, you can get hurt. The incidents of getting hurt is really high, especially if you are not properly trained,” Frederickson said. “And if someone doesn’t have workers’ comp, the homeowner, the company owner and everybody who is involved can be sued if someone is injured. You can be held liable.”
While there were several unlicensed, unbonded and uninsured landscapers running around the Augusta area trying to scam residents out of their money, they weren’t the only ones.
In late February, local promoter Charles Collins Jr. again tried to sucker the CSRA with a pitifully planned concert called AugustaPalooza.
Despite the fact that Collins’ concert called Rock-N-Country Music Bash at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in the fall of 2013 was a complete embarrassment and a total disaster, the shameless promoter returned to his old tricks with the announcement of a new music festival for Masters Week 2014.
Under the name Turn On Your Radio Music Park, Collins stated that he planned to present the first annual “AugustaPalooza: 19th Hole Music Festival” from April 7-12.
At the time of the initial announcement, the lengthy seven-day festival did not have one musical artist scheduled to perform on its website, turnonyourradiomusicpark.com. Everything was still “to be announced,” including the ticket prices.
Also a curious dilemma facing Collins appeared to be the location of the seven-day festival. Neither the website or Turn On Your Radio Music Park’s Facebook page listed the location of the inaugural AugustaPalooza. However, rumor was that Collins planned to hold the festival in the parking lot of the former Regency Mall site.
It was a disaster waiting to happen.
In Fall of 2013, the Metro Spirit revealed that Collins was convicted in 2010 on eight counts of obtaining property by false pretense and one felony count of passing a worthless check in North Carolina.
He was sentenced to 285 days in jail and given four probation sentences of eight to 10 months each and ordered to pay restitution of $11,830.
Back in 2009, Collins apparently claimed that he was going to revive the North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina that had been dormant since 1996, but he never actually paid his vendors and didn’t stage a single race, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Collins also allegedly claimed that he was developing a reality TV show featuring female race-car drivers, but none of that ever happened.
The newspaper reported that his “legal problems started when one of the female racers who paid him more than $2,200 for a race school that was canceled said that he cheated her.”
Collins provided the woman a refund check, but it bounced.
Following Collins’ arrest in North Carolina, investigators discovered outstanding fugitive warrants for him from Florida and Georgia. The Florida warrant charged him with felony counts of contracting without a license during an emergency and third-degree grand theft. The Georgia fugitive warrant stemmed from a 2002 probation violation that said Collins owed $15,182 in restitution.
After serving his time in prison, Collins eventually made his way to Augusta and has been hanging around ever since.
He’s like a bad case of ringworm that just won’t go away.