The chairman of the Augusta Port Authority Clarence Thompkins III appeared before the Augusta Commission on April 19 and requested an audit of the authority’s finances. Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. told him to be patient and “everything will get straightened out.”
Thompkins says that he has been patient for more than two years and has never gotten a straight answer on how much money is budgeted for the Augusta Port Authority, which apparently co-owns, with the city, the property located at 101 Riverwood Drive that includes the Augusta Marina and the Boathouse.
The matter is to be discussed again at the May 3 commission meeting, but Thompkins says that despite meeting with the City Attorney’s Office and Parks and Recreation Director Maurice McDowell, he has not only been denied any financial information, but that the city has circled the wagons.
“They have been lying to me for two years, and now they won’t even get into an elevator with me when I visit the Municipal Building,” Thompkins said.
The Augusta Port Authority was created by the Georgia legislature, and most of the members are selected by the Augusta-Richmond County Commission, but Thompkins says he cannot get a straight answer from anyone as to how much money is budgeted for the authority and how much money out of that budget has been spent.
According to Thompkins, he visited with Finance Director Donna Williams who told him that records showed that the authority spent $60,000 a year to the parks and recreation department to cut the grass at the property. The records also showed $18,000 in funding was spent to support the annual Iron Man competition and Thompkins himself was paid $28,000 a year to serve as chairman of the authority.
“I have never received a paycheck for sitting on that authority, the authority never signed any agreement to pay $60,000 to cut that little strip of grass when we are supposed to have inmates to do the work, and why are we paying a huge corporation to put on an event when they make all the profit?” Thompkins said.
After initially being shown some documents, Thompkins says the finance department then changed its tune about him receiving a paycheck and said that the money was allocated to an employee they could not identify.
At that point, according to Thompkins, even the finance department began stonewalling him and claimed they did not have the records. After scheduling several meetings with the authority members and then not showing up, McDowell finally met with Thompkins and authority member Frank Carl and told them that the money did not belong to the Port Authority, it belonged to the city of Augusta and that they should stop inquiring about the matter.
An open records request for the allocated budget was sent to the Augusta Administrator’s Office and the response was that the city was not the custodian of records for the Port Authority and that the request was denied.
However, the city’s own checking account records, which are available online, show that an active bank account for the Port Authority does exist within the Parks and Rec Department. A second open records request was made specific to the bank account and the city doubled down claiming they are not the custodian of any records pertaining to the Port Authority.
The heading on the bank account clearly reads “Augusta Port Authority.”
An examination of special-purpose local-option sales tax VI shows that $500,000 was earmarked for the Augusta Marina and Boathouse, both co-owned by the Port Authority, but the city claims not to be the custodian of those records either.
So, it appears that the SPLOST funding simply vanished, much like the funding for the Jamestown Community Center vanished which put into motion an investigation that has District 4 Commissioner Sammie Sias currently on trial in Federal Court for lying to the FBI and destroying documents.
“We never saw a dime of that SPLOST money, anytime we have needed money for repairs in the past, we have had to go and beg the city for it,” Thompkins said.
District 3 Commissioner Catherine McKnight, who sat on the Port Authority prior to being elected as a commissioner says the mayor has tried to squelch her voice as well, referring to the April 19 meeting when Davis refused to ask McDowell to stand before the commission and explain the matter and says she is not going to leave the next commission meeting without an answer to her questions.
“Why do you think I have been asking for a forensic audit all along? We need answers, and it is the same departments that keep coming up with financial irregularities. I say, enough is enough,” McKnight said.