June 12, 2018 10:29:21 AM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
The Mississippi State Auditor's Office is investigating Oktibbeha County officials for potentially wrongly giving away almost $3,000 in county property to a private citizen.
Board of Supervisors attorney Rob Roberson confirmed the investigation, which he said involves an agreement supervisors made last fall to give metal panels from a bridge on Reed Road to Walt Starr.
Starr, who lives in Columbus, is a periodontal surgeon with practices in both Columbus and Starkville. He has also been a member of the State Institutions of Higher Learning Board since Gov. Phil Bryant appointed him in 2015.
The county worked on a condemned bridge on Reed Road last year, which is near property Starr owns.
Roberson said District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, in whose district the property sits, came to an agreement with Starr to use part of the property as a staging area for trucks, supplies and equipment for the work, and Starr granted the county an easement for the work.
In return, Roberson said, the county gave Starr some old metal panels and beams that were removed from the bridge during construction -- which he said the county determined were worth about $2,800.
However, Roberson said the county cannot legally give away property.
"The procedure would've been to make it surplus, but they still would have had to sell the panels," Roberson said. "The proper thing would have been to pay Mr. Starr x-amount for the use of his land, and then to have sold him those panels.
"Hindsight is 20/20 at this point," he added.
Roberson said the panels, which are old military-grade panels and were set aside during the construction project, normally may have been saved to be used in an emergency situation. However, he said the county already has some in reserve that have not been used.
Howard, when contacted by The Dispatch, said he'd been instructed not to speak about the investigation while it's ongoing.
"I've represented District 3 as supervisor with the utmost integrity," he said. "It's unfortunate that this is happening, but once findings are made, I think people will see there was absolutely no intention of wrongdoing."
The State Auditor's Office declined to confirm or deny the investigation's existence or to comment on the record about it.
Roberson, who was appointed as board attorney on March 19 to succeed the late Jack Brown, said he caught wind of the investigation about two weeks after being hired. He said the State Auditor's Office contacted the county to confirm the investigation, which an anonymous tip initiated.
Since then, Roberson said he's been in contact with the office, and the county is fully cooperating with the investigation. He said the county is also complying with a request from the State Auditor's Office to not speak on the matter so there's no influencing of the investigation.
Who could be liable?
Two people are potentially liable for having to repay the money, Roberson said -- Howard, or County Road Manager Fred Hal Baggett.
He said Baggett could potentially fall into the investigation because his department is the one that oversees roadwork, such as the Reed Road bridge project. Supervisors hired Baggett in July 2017 at an annual salary of $76,500.
"I think the outcome is going to be at some point they're going to tell us the supervisor that's responsible, or Mr. Baggett, will have to pay that amount," Roberson said. "That would be my knee-jerk thought. That should be the end of the story.
"I don't think they're raising this to the level of criminal behavior," he added. "I think they see this as a mistake that needs to be corrected."
Baggett declined to comment when contacted about the investigation.
If a demand for repayment is issued, Roberson said, the money would be repaid to Oktibbeha County, rather than the state, unless the auditor's office issues a specific fine to be paid with it.
The investigation should be completed in two to four weeks, Roberson said, and he noted the State Auditor's Office hasn't asked him for any information in the last few weeks. Still, he said the county will work with the office for as long as the investigation continues.
Ultimately, he said he feels the issue is a mistake that slipped through the cracks when Brown was ill. He said Howard likely meant well, and viewed the panels as a trade for Starr allowing the use of his property, but went about giving them to him in the wrong way.
"I think that was the thought process -- they were trying to be fair to Mr. Starr and give him something of value to compensate him for the damage and the easement, would be my guess," Roberson said.
'And now I'm in Bridge-gate'
Starr, speaking to The Dispatch Tuesday morning, said he owns 1,200 acres near the bridge site. He said he agreed with Howard to give the easement and to allow part of his land to be used as a staging area for the work.
Starr said the panels, which Howard told him were going to be sold for scrap or otherwise unused, were to be a trade for the easement and property damage. He said he valued the damage and easement at $25,000. He said he asked Howard to get proper approval before going through with the process.
"I said 'Do what you gotta do, but I don't want anything under the table and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work,'" Starr said.
He said he later saw Howard, and Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer, who told him the matter had been properly tended to.
"And now I'm in Bridge-gate," Starr said.
Starr said he hasn't been contacted by the State Auditor's Office, but he is aware of the investigation. He further contends a supervisor made the tip, and he is now "caught in the middle" when he originally intended to just help the county.
"Another supervisor is mad and called, made a complaint and used me as a pawn," he said. "That's the truth. This is an in-fight among some of them.""
As for the panels, Starr said the county is welcome to them, once the matter is resolved if it pays him for the damage and the easement.
"I don't give a rip about the panels," he said. "They can come get them, if they pay up for the damage to my land."