Four people have been arrested in connection with an investigation into missing funds from the Camden County Public Service Authority, the department responsible for the county’s parks and recreation programs.
William Brunson, the former PSA director was charged last year with two counts of theft by taking of government property after more than $40,000 was found missing. He was arrested again on Tuesday after an independent accounting firm discovered $1.7 million in questionable transactions were discovered after a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe was completed.
Also arrested were the county’s former chief financial officer Mike Fender, and his wife, Carolyn Fender for allegedly receiving more than $430,000 for Advance Learning Center, a school owned by the Fenders, investigators said. The school funding was allegedly disguised as a grant that did not exist.
Mike Fender was the chief financial officer for more than 21 years until he was fired in November for allegedly lying to his bosses about his role with the missing funds.
The Fenders have been charged with felony theft by deception, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision and conspiracy to commit a crime.
A fourth suspect, Shawnta Jenkins, the former PSA assistant director, was also arrested in Houston County for her alleged role in the missing funds. She has been charged with felony theft by deception, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision and conspiracy to commit a crime.
The county did receive $1 million, the maximum allowable amount, after filing an insurance claim to recoup part of the missing funds. The county and the cities of St. Marys, Kingsland and Woodbine will be reimbursed for the funds the provided last year to keep the PSA solvent after the discover of the missing funds.
Camden County Sheriff Jim Proctor ordered his department to conduct an additional investigation concerning the missing funds, according to a report.
The investigation revealed Brunson had allegedly stolen the funds from a PSA general expenditure account and two Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax accounts that were intended for future upgrades to the parks and recreation programs and properties.
More than $811,000 is missing from the SPLOST 6 account and more than $128,000 is missing from the SPLOST 7 account.
And it could get worse. Some funds will likely never be fully accounted for. Brunson often collected the cash from events such as football games and admission fees at the swimming pools and the recreation department and it’s unclear how much, if any, was deposited.
“Although these arrests have been made the investigation will continue into what could be additional millions of dollars in financial thefts from the PSA. Additional charges, and arrests, are possible as other criminal activities are revealed,” according to the report.
Proctor said he wants to hold everyone involved in the missing funds to be held accountable.
“After reviewing the independent audit, I determined that the millions of dollars of taxpayer money that was missing needed additional investigation,” Proctor said. “As sheriff of Camden County I assigned criminal investigators to continue the work that had been done by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and bring additional charges to those responsible for these illegal activities. We owe it to the citizens of Camden County to see that those responsible are prosecuted for their actions.”
This year’s Miss Rodeo USA managed to squeeze in a visit to Glynn County Animal Control to see the shelter pets Wednesday.
Crowned Miss Rodeo in January, Heather Morrison said she’s been traveling all over the United States to promote the pastime of rodeo. She’s currently in town for this weekend’s Rodeo at the Beach.
“I’m going to be very cultured by the end of this year,” Morrison said.
Originally from southern Iowa, it’s also her first time in Georgia.
“It’s beautiful. I love it here. Everyone is super nice. I’m loving every minute of it,” Morrison said.
She arrived Tuesday evening, and had already dropped in for two radio interviews and visited several local establishments by Wednesday afternoon.
Rodeo attendees can meet Morrison on Friday and Saturday nights at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds in Brunswick.
The gates open at 6 p.m. and the rodeo starts at 7:30 p.m. both nights, said Exchange Club of Brunswick member Stephen Floyd.
Cowboys and cowgirls will compete in seven events: bull riding, barrel racing, team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and calf roping, Floyd said.
Animal control will also bring its mobile adoption van to the event.
Both nights, teachers and principals from Glynn County School will be competing in bull riding to win a $500 prize. Elementary school teachers will compete Friday, while middle and high school teachers will go at it Saturday night.
Kids ages 8-12 can compete for prizes in the cash scramble, Floyd said. Whoever pulls a ribbon loose from a calf’s tail wins.
Children too young to chase the calf can participate in the gold rush. The rodeo clown will hide prizes in a hay pile, and it’s the kids’ task to find them.
Tickets can be purchased at the gate for $15. For more information, call the Brunswick Exchange Club at 912-265-3464 or visit rodeoatthebeach.com
Fighting winds gusting as high as 40 miles per hour, biologists Tim Keyes and Abby Sterling struggled to rope off and post signs around an area of East Beach near Gould’s Inlet on Wednesday morning.
“How many biologists does it take to screw in a sign?” Keyes, with the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation Section, joked.
Sterling, with nonprofit environmental research firm Manomet, responded, “Well, when the winds are this strong.”
Keyes and Sterling said they were roping off two sections of beach and dunes just south of the 15th Street beach access to protect Wilson’s plover and least tern nesting habitats.
Signs affixed to wooden posts along the fence displayed drawings by local elementary school students, warning beachgoers to avoid the potential nesting area for the safety of the birds.
Such measures are usually called “symbolic fences,” Sterling said, as they aren’t likely to keep out a determined visitor. They’re mostly intended to inform the public and hopefully deter responsible citizens.
“We try to leave obvious beach accesses open because people will say ‘Screw this, I’m going to the beach,’” Keyes explained.
People won’t be seeing a lot of the birds just yet, however. The Wilson’s plovers are here but are still scouting out the area for good nesting spots, Sterling said, and the least tern has by and large yet to begin migrating.
Keyes said the least tern is a recent visitor to the Golden Isles, having only begun regularly nesting on East Beach in the last five or six years.
Birds could start nesting in early April, Sterling said, and usually wrap up around August.
“I already heard some, so if they like the area, they could nest soon,” she said.
Even in their natural habitat, nests face many hazards from the weather and other animals. Often plovers and terns pick spots prone to “overwashing,” being hit with waves during very high tides.
“They always pick sketchy areas likely to overwash,” Keyes said.
Chicks that do hatch face the threat of being left defenseless when people or pets scare away their parents, Sterling said, hence the fence. If the adults are kept away from their young for too long, they could be killed by the elements, starve or be picked off by larger birds, Keyes said.
“They’re precocious chicks. They like to get out of the nest and explore around. It (the fence) won’t be enough area to keep the chicks in, but it should be enough to protect them,” Keyes said.
It’s not uncommon for shorebirds to “re-nest” three or four times before either succeeding in raising chicks or giving up and moving on, Keyes said.
Wilson’s plovers don’t go far after nesting season. They either remain in the Golden Isles or migrate to Florida or islands in the Caribbean Sea. Least terns, meanwhile, prefer to migrate to Caribbean islands or to South America.
Should a beachgoer find themselves face-to-face with one of the birds, Keyes encouraged them to make sure it’s not because they’re encroaching on a nesting area.
“Birds will typically let you know when you’re too close to a nest,” Keyes said.
Sterling added: “They will panic. It’s a good idea to back straight away from where you’re standing.”
While the birds tend to be able to handle natural threats, they’re very sensitive to people, exhibiting what Sterling called “a balance of tough and vulnerable.”
“Seeing (Wilson’s plover and least tern chicks) really clicks off in your mind how fragile they are,” Keyes said.
“They’re so small, and they’re like little squeaky toys,” Sterling said of least tern chicks.
Least terns and Wilson’s plover are just two of many species of shore-nesting birds known to build their nests on the Georgia coast. In particular, Little St. Simons Island is a hotspot for shorebirds.
“There are many other species that are less likely to nest on an island with this much foot traffic,” Keyes said.
Little St. Simons and Jekyll Island are already in the process of setting up areas to protect shorebird nests as well, Keyes said, and he’s got signs and rope for anyone else willing to do so.
New rules governing lawyer- legislators — regarding receiving leave from cases they’re on back home — could become law in the near future thanks to language added on to state Sen. William Ligon’s bill that otherwise deals with e-filing fees.
Senate Bill 38 passed the Senate on Feb. 13, and was awaiting movement in the House Judiciary Committee, when House Bill 502 was grafted onto it following the recommendations of an advisory panel formed by House Speaker David Ralston. Ralston created the group after an Atlanta Journal- Constitution/WSB-TV investigation that revealed he may have misused his office to, in effect, indefinitely delay prosecution of some of his criminal law clients.
Courts at various levels allow for leave for attorneys involved in matters before those courts, so long as the attorneys follow procedure and the judge in question approves it. There are other, current provisions in the law regarding the service of state legislators who are also attorneys, in delaying matters at home so as to attend to their public service at the Capitol.
H.B. 502 awaits consideration in the Senate Rules Committee, but it was added to S.B. 38 to try to make sure the provisions pass the General Assembly in one way or another.
Former House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey said the advisory group was made up of leaders of both parties in the House, three judges — trial, appeals and state Supreme Court — prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, plaintiff’s layers and insurance defense attorneys.
“We took a hard look at some of the allegations that we’d seen that’d come out in the newspapers, and listened to a lot of the concerns that had been raised by folks who had cases up in that particular area,” Lindsey said Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee. “We also drew from our own personal experience in the courtroom, and … equally importantly, pulled from statutes around the country and tried to figure out what would be the best practice in terms of moving forward.”
He said the panel was guided by several factors, including that a lawyer-legislator was the only kind of legislator with duties to another branch of government, that they had mandatory duties to their constituents, and that judges should retain control of the leave process.
Lindsey said they decided lawyer-legislators had to be the lead counsel in a case to request leave, and that objections could be made by opposing counsel or the judge, and in criminal cases, the alleged victims. Additionally, the judge’s grounds of considering leave over an objection would include the time in which the case was pending, how leave would incumber the case, and the respective rights of the parties.
State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said if S.B. 38 goes to the House floor as it stands, he will vote for it, but he doesn’t think it fixes the opportunities for abuse.
“Only one person has abused this, as it is today, that we know of,” Turner said. “Research is being done for everyone who’s an attorney in the legislature — there are media people who are very hungry to find a story, and it’s not just about the speaker. So if there are abuses of this, it’s going to come to light over the next several months.”
Turner said this will probably work for most lawyer-legislators, but that the House speaker was a position of particular responsibility and power, which should be a full-time job, so that the speaker wouldn’t or couldn’t be delaying professional responsibilities back home while in the House. Turner filed a bill, H.B. 675, that takes a crack at that, and he urged the committee to consider it next year.
Ultimately, the committee members unanimously passed S.B. 38, and it now awaits action in the House Rules Committee.