Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Forensic Audit Must Proceed On TEE Center Parking Deck Debacle

Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012
Augusta, GA
City Stink Commentary

Instead of putting the brakes on the questionable TEE Center Parking Deck management agreement, some commissioners want to put a stop to the forensic audit that a majority of them approved on Dec. 20, 2011 to look into irregularities over the land transactions involved in the $12 million taxpayer financed Reynolds Street parking deck that has been mired in controversy since it opened four months ago.

When six commissioners approved the forensic audit almost six weeks ago, that was even before the revelations that not only does the city not own the land under the deck, but that it also has bank liens on it to secure debt for the landowner (933 Broad Investment LLC) for a sum over $7,000,000. One would think that this new information would prompt calls by commissioners for "Full Speed Ahead!" on the forensic audit, but instead, some of them want to drop anchor and sink the investigation before it even gets out of port. That would be a huge mistake and a disservice to the taxpayers.

There are simply too many unanswered questions regarding not only the parking deck but also the TEE Center across the street. On Monday we broke down the timeline of events how land was TO BE DEEDED to the city by Augusta Riverfront LLC and its subsidiary 933 Broad Investment LLC. That language evolved into  WILL BE DONATED.. and eventually into only the city getting AIR RIGHTS.  No one has been able to give a satisfactory explanation for how this happened and why commissioners were not told when the terms changed so drastically. And how could  land be DEEDED or DONATED to the city when it has liens attached to it as security for  over $7,000,000 of debt? But commissioners were explicitly told that it would be DONATED by landowner 933 Broad Investment LLC at the Dec. 9th, 2009 commission meeting when the TEE Center and parking deck were approved; the liens were conveniently never mentioned.

One would think that all of the commissioners would be looking for answers, but some of them appear to want to just sweep it all under the rug. Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who chairs the finance committee, told George Eskola of WJBF news yesterday that:
The taxpayers voted to build the TEE Center and parking deck. It's being built, it needs to be operational as soon as it can, so we can make money off of that.

Watch the video of George Eskola's report on WJBF below:

We would like to remind Commissioner Brigham that the voters never approved the parking deck; that was added several years later.  And voters only approved $20,000,000 for the TEE Center that was embedded in a 2005 SPLOST. It ended up costing $38,000,000 not counting the $12,000,000 parking deck that was added later.

We agree with Brigham that the city needs to be able to make money off its investment, but the way the deals and transactions have been engineered, that may never happen. It's in the taxpayers' interest to get to the bottom of what happened, what went wrong, and how the city might be able to construct a better deal where it can actually recoup some of its investment. But to many observers it looks like the city was duped.

And even if the audit can't fix the damage that has already been done it can hopefully prevent it from happening again. The information gained from it will better prepare the city for future deals that could save taxpayers millions of dollars. And the taxpayers deserve some transparency and accountability that has so obviously been lacking in this project.

Commissioner Joe Jackson told George Eskola in the same WJBF report that: 
“There's nothing criminal that I've seen a forensic audit would be admissible in court. To me, this is just a stall tactic to hold up progress.”

Actually, the purpose of a forensic audit is to uncover evidence that would be admissible in court. And it seems a bit presumptuous of Jackson to conclude that all is kosher with the project before there has even been an investigation. And we are also not presuming that there is criminality involved, but there are simply too many irregularities to ignore.

As far as  "a stall tactic to hold up progress," we're not sure of exactly what Commissioner Jackson's definition of "progress" is, but we are pretty confident that for most people, "progress" is not spending a total of $50,000,000 of taxpayers' money to construct buildings on someone else's land, and with bank liens on it to boot.

Instead of halting progress on the audit, commissioners should be halting action on the parking deck management contract. With so many unanswered questions over this deal, why would commissioners want to rush into tying the public to a 15 year contract that is so lopsided that the city would be lucky to even break even and may never see a profit on it's $12,000,000 investment? Just like those multi-year cell phone contracts, the devil is often in the fine print.

Next Tuesday, commissioners will take up the the parking deck management contract again. Some commissioners seem more than willing to ignore the irregularities and just "trust the lawyers." Well, they might want to consult with folks over in Columbia County to see how well "trusting the lawyers," turned out for them on the Magnolia Trace debacle.

 As we told you in a previous story, we discovered that Columbia County attorney Doug Batchelor was working on behalf  of the Missouri-based developers of the low income housing development at the same time he was advising  county leaders about its merits. Now Columbia County politicians are feeling the backlash from an angry public who believe their property values were subordinated to the interests of the out of state Magnolia Trace developers who also just happened to donate to the campaigns of certain county and state officials.

It would be wise for Augusta commissioners to remember  for whom they work and to not always "trust the lawyers."  As you can see, "the lawyers" can play both sides. The public is watching, and like the citizens in Columbia County, they are demanding accountability and transparency. What kind of message would it send to the citizens of Augusta to try and sweep this all under the rug by halting the forensic audit? Well to most people it makes it appear that there really is something to hide. Is there? As the stewards of the taxpayers' money, commissioners should also be demanding accountability and transparency, not figuring out ways to obfuscate the truth, especially when we are talking about projects that involve tens of millions of dollars in tax money.

Instead of just listening to "the lawyers", commissioners may want to start listening to the citizens for a change. They have a week to start paying attention. If not, they will certainly hear them loud and clear on election day.***

Contact the following commissioners and tell them you support a forensic audit of the TEE Center and Reynolds Street Parking Deck:

Commissioner Jerry Brigham
District 7
Ph: (706) 863-1698 (home)
Ph: (706) 650-1700 (work)
Fx: (706) 650-1141

Commissioner Joe Jackson
District 6
Ph: (706) 533-7839 (home)
Fx: (706) 821-1838

Commissioner Matt Aitken
District 1
Ph: (706) 724-4377 (home)
Ph: (706) 564-6281 (cell)
Fx: (706) 821-1838

Commissioner Joe Bowles
District 3
Ph: (706) 733-9074 (home)
Ph: (706) 825-6894 (work)
Fx: (706) 210-1871

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle
District 8
Ph: (706) 592-2385 (home)
Ph: (706) 796-3444 (work)
Fx: (706) 821-1838

Commissioner Grady Smith
Super District 10
Ph: (706) 825-9473 (cell)
Ph: (706) 733-9473 (work)
Fx: (706) 821-1838
No email available


Craig Spinks said...

Forensic audits are bureaucrats' nemesis. The corners of rugs are raised to reveal what lays underneath. What embarrassing info lays under the rugs in The Marble Palace?

Speaking of forensic audits and rugs, does anyone else wonder what embarrassing info lays under the rugs in Larke's Taj Mahal at the southeastern corner of James Brown Boulevard and Broad Street?

City Stink said...

Thanks Craig.. maybe you can touch on that in one of your future columns.