May 19, 2013

Former Varnell manager resigned as council members questioned credit card use

Charles Oliver

— Varnell Mayor Pro Tem David Owens said he’d been concerned about the city’s credit card payments for some months. That’s why he asked then-City Manager Jason Hall for the last few months bills in early March.

Records provided by city officials after an open records request by The Daily Citizen show that monthly purchases on the card issued to Hall ranged from about $1,200 to more than $3,000 during 2012.

Owens said he thought some of the charges related to the City Hall the city was then building. City officials say Hall was authorized to make some purchases for the project, such as providing a weekly meal for the state prisoners doing the work, on the card. He was also authorized to buy things for the recreation department’s concession stands.

“He did have some delegation to use the card,” Owens said.

“My first concern was that if we were charging items on our credit cards for that construction, to make sure everything was being charged to the right account,” Owens said.

Owens said he didn’t expect to find what he discovered when Hall turned over copies of the bills.

“I spotted a couple of items that did not seem like they represented a purchase for City Hall or for the city, so I called these people and identified myself and asked what those charges were for,” he said.

After those calls, Owens remained convinced that some of those purchases could not have been for city business. For instance, several of the bills contain charges for RightNowCampaign.

“That is a company that provides videotaped sermons and lessons for churches,” Owens said. “As soon as I discovered these things I informed the mayor.”

Council members then met with Hall to go over the past year’s worth of bills. They say that what they found concerned them even more. Hall, they said, had not kept receipts for many of the purchases.

“To me, that was the biggest no no. We are supposed to keep receipts for everything. It has been a frustrating experience for me,” Mayor Dan Peeples said recently. “I have worked every day for the city for the last five years and haven’t made a penny and to see someone get their car washed or eat a meal or buy something at Home Depot and not even keep the receipt is very frustrating.”

Interviewed by The Daily Citizen in March shortly after Hall’s resignation, Peeples had taken a softer approach. He said there may have been some disagreements over spending, but noted, “But that happens in any government.”

Many of the charges were from vendors such as Walmart or AutoZone or Food Lion. Many others were from local restaurants.

Without receipts, city officials say there’s no way to tell what was purchased or if those meals should legitimately have been charged to the city’s card. Peeples said the city does not plan to pursue any criminal action because of that uncertainty.

Peeples said he did ask Hall for his password on to check out the charges that were made there. He said he found the city’s card had been used to buy a headset for an Xbox gaming system and an alarm clock for an iPod.

What did Hall say when asked about those purchases or other purchases identified as not for the city?

“He said, ‘Gosh, I’m sorry. That should have been on my personal credit card. I inadvertently put it on the city’s card,’” Peeples said.

Reached by phone last week, Hall declined to discuss the credit card records.

“I don’t believe I’m at liberty to talk about that,” he said.

Why not?

“I just don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about those,” he said.

About a week after council members confronted him, Hall resigned on March 15, after less than two years on the job. Council members insist they were not pressuring him to resign.

“At that time, we had not even discussed the personnel action we would take with regard to him,” Owens said.

Owens and Peeples say Hall said he believed the council would no longer trust him.

Days after his resignation, Hall told The Daily Citizen he had resigned to help his wife run a bakery she had started in LaFayette. Hall was hired in April as city manager in Lyons, in Toombs County.

Hall was paid approximately $50,000 a year by Varnell. Before he left, he signed over his last two paychecks to the city, worth approximately $1,800, to cover the costs of items charged to the card city officials had identified as not city related, officials said

“I feel it was a good faith effort on his part. But it’s hard to tell if it really covers the personal stuff,” Peeples said.

Peeples said the council does not plan to hire a city manager this year.

“We want to save that money,” he said.

Peeples said he and Owens are taking on the responsibilities of the city manager in running the daily business of the city.