January 16, 2014

Pourquoi to ask for investigation of former Varnell city manager

Charles Oliver

— VARNELL — A Varnell City Council member says he will ask the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office to investigate possible misuse of city funds by former city manager Jason Hall.

“I believe that, as an elected representative of the people, I have a moral obligation, likely a legal one as well, to inform law enforcement authorities on these matters,” said Jan Pourquoi in a statement at the end of Thursday night’s council meeting.

Reached after the meeting, Hall said he is confident any investigation will not turn up anything and did not think it was necessary.

Hall stepped down in March 2013, just over two years after taking the position, after council members began looking into his use of a city-issued credit card. He was soon after hired as city manager in Lyons.

Pourquoi was elected to the council in November and took office just a few days ago. He said he asked then-mayor Dan Peeples in November how much money it was possible Hall could have misused and Peeples said it was about $100,000. Reached after the meeting, Peeples said that number is much too high.

“If I said that, I either misspoke or misunderstood Mr. Pourquoi’s question,” he said.

Council members Sheldon Fowler and Allan Pippin, who were on the council at the time Hall resigned, agreed that number was much too high.

“If we’d suspected him of misappropriating that much money, we would have asked for an investigation ourselves,” Fowler said.

Records provided by city officials after an open records request last year by The Daily Citizen showed that monthly purchases on the card issued to Hall ranged from about $1,200 to just over $3,000 during 2012. Council members said when they began looking at those charges they found some that clearly could not be for city business. For instance, several of the bills contained charges for RightNowCampaign, a company that provides videotaped sermons and lessons for churches.

“When we asked him about those, he (Hall) said he’d accidentally charged some things on his city card instead of his personal card,” Pippin said.

As they dug deeper, council members said they found that Hall had not kept records for many of his purchases, which made it difficult to tell what he’d bought.

“We were building a new City Hall at the time and doing some other projects. If we saw a charge to Walmart or Home Depot, it could well have been for one of those projects. But we just didn’t know,” Peeples said.

Council members said that uncertainty is the major reason they did not pursue criminal action.

“It would have cost us money in attorney’s fees and other costs and we didn’t know what the outcome would be,” Pippin said.

Before he left last year, Hall signed over his last two paychecks to the city, worth approximately $1,800, to cover the costs of items charged to the city-issued card that city officials had identified as not city related, officials said.

“Did he pay us back completely? I guess we’ll never know, but I believe he made an attempt,” said Peeples.

Pippin said he was surprised by Pourquoi’s announcement.

“I really feel like this is something he should have discussed with the council first,” he said.

But Pourquoi said he believed he needed to act quickly.

“This happened almost a year ago, and the powers that be have had time to act,” he said.