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How Georgia Taxpayers Were Fleeced in October

The Feds Got Duped: A Macon man collected monthly disability payment benefits but failed to tell the government that he was at the same time running a successful cleaning company.

That man, Demetris Hill, was convicted last month in federal court of one count of theft of government property and one count of false claims against the government. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, Hill faces a total maximum prison term of 15 years.

Also last month, federal officials indicted an Atlanta woman, Tiffany Brown, for allegedly defrauding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, Brown was awarded a nearly $146 million contract. She was to provide 30 million self-heating meals to residents of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated that island in 2017. 

Brown not only lacked the capability to do what she agreed to do, she also plagiarized significant portions of her proposal, federal officials said.

A Road Paved with Good Intentions: A government program meant to assist Georgia’s crime victims might not receive the proper oversight against waste, fraud, or abuse.

That’s because the local and state governments don’t seem to have enough measures in place to prevent people from abusing it.

Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia (PAC) Executive Director Pete Skandalakis said criminals in the state who pay fines for their behavior must add 5% extra to fund a victims’ assistance program. That money then goes to officials at the county level, who distribute it as they see fit. 

Some counties only have one victims’ aid program, while others have several, Skandalakis said. 

If a county has more than one program then county officials decide how to allocate the 5 % and to whom. That money, for instance, could go to a rape crisis or a child advocacy center, Skandalakis said. 

But if a county only has one victims’ aid program then the local district attorney’s office manages the money as it sees fit. 

But does the program contain any accountability measures in case someone with access takes the money and uses it either for other purposes or on themselves?

“That’s a good question,” Skandalakis said, when asked.

“I don’t know that our best practices delve into the accounting.”

Best Practices Guidelines for the use of 5 % victim funds, obtained from Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, are unclear.

In a follow-up, via email, Skandalakis attached a copy of PAC’s Best Practice Guidelines for the use of 5% victim funds.

“The law is not explicit on how prosecutor’s offices may use 5% funds. The only guidance given is that 5% funds should be used to offset costs of providing victim services,” Skandalakis wrote in the accompanying email.

“In the absence of specific guidance, PAC formed a committee in 2004 to provide best practices on the use of those funds. Revisions to the Guidebook took place in 2020 at the direction of then Chair Margaret D. Heap.”

Those updated guidelines mention past complaints about how certain Georgia jurisdictions were collecting and disbursing the money. People complained about disorganized record keeping and money going to organizations not listed as certified providers.

Skandalakis, in 2004, formed a committee to guide elected prosecutors on “best practices.” The Guidebook, in its conclusion, said it is merely a reference guide and cannot address in detail every issue that might arise.

The issue of accountability came into focus late last month after FOX 5 Atlanta reported that Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard used money meant to help witnesses or victims of crime on herself, to repair her jewelry, at antique stores, at Best Buy, and to cremate her dog. According to the Gainesville Times, Woodard said she made mistakes in how she oversaw the program and requested an independent state review of her office’s finances.

A Different Type of Eviction Notice: Athens-Clarke County had its own eviction prevention program, but county leaders suspended it late last month after they realized that nearly $40,000 of taxpayer money had vanished.

Flagpole reported that the Athenian First Development Corp, the nonprofit running the program, no longer had that money in its bank account.

“AFDC informed HCD that it could not repay the $37,895, nor could it meet its October payroll or process 22 applications for financial assistance,” the Flagpole reported.

“The nonprofit also would not provide updated August and September documentation or submit a written plan to resolve the issues.”

Athens-Clarke County officials did not return our requests for comment.

Acting CAREless: The Montgomery County Board of Education spent more than $30,000 of CARES Act money that the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) did not review and approve of in advance and thus broke federal law.

This is according to a new audit that the Georgia Department of Audits and Accountants published this week.

The federal CARES Act provides local education agencies (LEAs) with additional funding to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. Through the CARES Act, the feds provided the GaDOE with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund money. The GaDOE gave more than $1.9 million to the Montgomery County Board of Education for Fiscal Year 2021.    

Auditors questioned the school system’s decision to spend $32,737 after they tested a sample of expenditures that cost more than $72,000, according to their report. 

“In discussing these deficiencies with management, they stated that the employee responsible for submitting an amended budget within the Consolidated Application system was on extended leave when the School District voted to expend ESSER funds for items not currently reflected within the approved budget,” auditors wrote.

“Therefore, an amended budget was not submitted and approved in a timely manner. Additionally, School District management was unaware of the requirement to have expenditures approved within the Consolidated Application system prior to the expending of funds.”