The Columbia County Commission takes “no joy” in sending Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal a letter this week asking him to look into alleged misconduct by Tax Commissioner Kay Allen, said Commission Chairman Ron Cross during a special called meeting on Monday.
For the past several months, the FBI has been conducting a joint investigation with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to find out whether Allen has been improperly profiting from contracts to collect taxes for Harlem and Grovetown.
Cross said the commission’s letter to the governor neither “supports nor condemns” the conduct of Allen.
“It is our desire that this matter be resolved quickly so we all can again begin to rebuild the public trust if it is found to be necessary,” Cross said in a prepared statement to the media. “Elected constitutional officials are given almost unlimited powers in the performance of their duties without oversight from this or any other body.
“Our auditors constantly review written records of all county funds but it is impossible where no records exist.”
The Columbia County Commission unanimously approved sending the governor the letter, with the exception of Commissioner Charles Allen Jr., who recused himself from voting because Kay Allen is his wife.
Following the vote, Cross said he was disappointed by the accusations against Kay Allen, but acknowledged that the commission doesn’t know the full story.
“It’s not something you want to see,” Cross said candidly. “It happens from time to time. It may be a first in Columbia County, but then again, we don’t know the entire story. We’ve only seen one side. Two sides will come out. In the meantime, we will continue to do our work.”
The investigation into Allen’s alleged misconduct apparently began after former Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson, who was fired in October, met with the FBI.
Johnson, an employee of the tax commissioner’s office for 15 years, claims that his relationship with Allen began deteriorating after he admitted to her that he was planning on running for the tax commissioner’s seat in 2016.
Johnson’s termination form states he was fired because Allen held him responsible for a missing bank bag that allegedly contained $55 that never made it the Evans government center from the Appling office in July.
None of those allegations are true, Johnson insists.
“It said that I misappropriated $55 in a bank bag and had coerced an employee to lie for me,” Johnson said. “It also said that I was belligerent to her or disrespectful to her.
Which, none of that is true.”
When asked how long he was aware of allegations that Allen was personally profiting from the contracts with Harlem and Grovetown, Johnson said Steve Adams, an employee in the accounting division of the tax commissioner’s office, informed him a few years ago that he had some concerns about the manner in which the money was being collected.
Therefore, Johnson said that he asked Allen about some of Adams’ concerns.
“She said, ‘Oh, (Steve Adams) doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I have a right to that money. Or I have the right to give that money to my staff,’” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well, I can either take the money for myself or I can distribute the money for collecting the tax digest for the cities to my staff.’”
Considering the office’s “frontline” employees weren’t paid very much, Johnson asked Allen if she could use the money to increase those employees’ salaries.
“It was like I slapped her in the face,” Johnson said. “She got upset about that. And she basically said she collects it, she is the tax commissioner and she decides where it goes. So, I left it alone.”
Allen has not responded to any requests by the Metro Spirit for a comment regarding the allegations against her. When Adams continued to ask questions about which county fund these checks should be deposited in, Johnson said Allen directed all of those checks to be delivered to Johnson’s mailbox instead.
“This is what threw up a red flag for me,” Johnson told the Metro Spirit. “She told me, ‘From now on, I’m going to move this to your mailbox and when you get these checks, just put them on my desk, but don’t open them.’”
When the checks arrived, Johnson immediately knew they were from the other municipalities for Allen.
“She loves writing in green ink and there was always the word, ‘confidential,’ written in green on the envelopes,” Johnson said. “So, she would send the municipalities envelopes for them to mail her the checks back. I don’t know the frequency of the checks. I just know every once in a while I would see that ‘confidential’ envelop and I would stick it on her desk and she would never say a word about it.”
Ironically, Adams was sworn in as the new deputy tax chief this week.
Following the Columbia County Commission’s decision to send Deal a letter regarding the alleged misconduct by Allen, Cross said he is aware that the sheriff’s office has turned over their files regarding the investigation to the district attorney’s office. However, he was not aware of the status of the FBI’s investigation.
“I understand, by process, the FBI turns their files over to the U.S. Attorney, Ed Tarver and his staff,” Cross said. “But I don’t know if that has been done.”
Despite rumors to the contrary last week, Allen has not resigned from her position, Cross said.
“She is still in office,” Cross said. “She has appointed a deputy commissioner who is handling the day-to-day activities. Whether she will decide to take part in any way with what is going on, duty wise, we have no indication and we have no say in it.”
The governor has 10 days to respond to the letter from the Columbia County Commission, Cross said.
“He really has 10 days to decide to call her in and get the other side of the story or decide it’s not worth investigating,” Cross said. “If, in whatever case, she should be removed from office, the duty to appoint a successor, as I understand it, for the duration of her term goes to the probate judge, Alice Padgett.”
But it is anyone’s guess as to how the governor will respond to the letter, Cross said.
“He can say nothing. He can say, ‘No, we aren’t going to deal with this.’ He can say, ‘We are going to wait out the law’ as he did in the Clayton County sheriff case.”
In that case, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hall was facing a 37-count indictment on charges of theft, racketeering and making false statements.
Deal decided not to suspend or remove Hall from office because he found that the state law regarding such actions only applied to officials indicted while holding their elected office.
“The governor refused to remove the sheriff from office and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges,” Cross said of Hall.
Only time will tell what the governor will decide to do regarding Allen, Cross said.
“It is very uncomfortable for everybody,” Cross said. “Nobody would elect to be in this situation regardless of which side you are on.”
Unfortunately, when these kinds of accusation arise, Cross says it undermines citizens’ faith in the government.
“Most of the public feels that you can’t trust public officials. We don’t have the best reputation in the world,” he said. “I think we have worked hard here in Columbia County to try to offset that. We certainly don’t get the publicity of the federal government and some other counties. But, nevertheless, the suspicion is always there.”
Cross said he only wishes the county commission learned of the allegations against Allen sooner.
“I wish we had some inkling before that it was going on because we had so many people who were deceived,” he said. “The cities thought they were paying to the county and the county was handling it according to law. The cities made the checks out properly, but the checks never made it to the county.”
When Johnson finally approached Cross and his colleagues with the allegations against Allen, Cross said he encouraged Johnson to speak with law enforcement.
“He came to us and we said, ‘You either go to the authorities or you are going to be grouped in with any wrongdoing that goes on because you’ve been there,’” Cross said.
Cross only hopes the matter can be resolved quickly, but he says he understands that it is important to thoroughly investigate the handling of these public funds.
“It is terribly discouraging,” Cross said. “We work very hard to be open and maintain a trust with the public. For the most part, we’ve had great constitutional officers with the sheriff, the clerk of court and the probate judge. It is just unfortunate, but it’s not the end of the world. I think we will survive and come out of it.”