07 December 2016

[TPC] - Delving into the Newton Co. Forensic Audit, Pt. I: The Jones Co. Mitigation Property - News Report & Commentary

The Piedmont Chronicles   
~ est. 2010 ~
[State of GA]
[Newton Co.]


(Covington, GA * 12/7/16)

First off, for those of you who have not seen the full report of the audit, MP Pat with The Taxpayer's Watchdog Group has uploaded it to her website:

Newton County Forensic Audit

As reported last week, the forensic audit of Newton County was released. The lion's share of the audit pertained to the Bear Creek Reservoir. Of special and particular note to TPC is one of the properties purchased for mitigation purposes known as The Jones County Property.


The Jones Co. tract, approx. 518 acres of stream buffer property, was originally purchased by Newton Co. from Southern Vision, LLC back in 2010 as part of the needed mitigation land in order to receive the Federal 404 permit from the US Corps of Engineers for the Bear Creek Reservoir. The price to purchase for this real estate was $2 million dollars, $3,860 per acre, and was, as the audit pointed out, an amount that seemed to be excessive being that it was over a year after the great crash of 2008 at a time when real estate values were plummeting, especially when one considers that it was bought by Southern Vision for $2,900 an acre in 2007. As the audit correctly pointed out, 2007 has long been considered the high water mark of real estate values.

Fast forward four years to May 8, 2014 and Southern Vision sold the remaining part of the tract not including the 518 acres of stream buffer land that Newton Co. owned, a parcel of approx. 1037 acres, to Timbervest LLC for an amount of $1.7 million.

Now this is where it gets interesting:

When Newton Co. originally bought that land in 2010, a restriction was placed prohibiting Southern Vision from timbering and harvesting any timber on "the property" as that would presumably create problems for Newton County using their land for mitigation purposes. 

On May 7, 2014, one day before Southern Vision sold the land to Timbervest, Newton County, as signed off on by Wm Thomas Craig and Keith Ellis - and apparently without knowledge or approval of the rest of the BOC - executed an agreement that terminated the restriction of timbering on the aforementioned property by Southern Vision or Timberland. As far as can be discerned, no compensation was given or received.

To be fair, I'm still not completely sure of all of the exact particulars of this specific situation. I've reached out to Wm. Thomas Craig three times now in the past 8 days. I've left three different messages. No call back. I've called Keith Ellis twice, left a VM, and dropped by his office (he wasn't there). No reply. I even reached out to David Sawyer, the CPA that did the audit. Haven't heard anything.

I'm still waiting to get a couple of additional documents pertaining to the settlement statement and the closing documents from 2010. 



Regardless of anything else, and based on information I've seen from the 2009 purchase and sales agreement and the 2014 agreement, the timing of the changes and the modification to the original agreement of May 7, 2014 seems to imply that both Craig and possibly Ellis knew that this land would not be used for mitigation purposes. It seems intuitive that if this is indeed the case then this may very well by a "smoking gun" of sorts as the 404 permit was not administratively pulled until 2015 and that comments made on the public record by Craig as recently as October 2015 show that he was telling the public that the 404 permit was just around the corner. If so, why would he have made a change to a key mitigation property that could have caused issues? I think the answer to that was that he knew full well that Newton Co. was never getting that permit. And again, look at the dates. May 7, 2014 - Newton Co. - as signed by Tommy Craig and Keith Ellis - makes the modification to the original agreement; May 8, 2014 - Timbervest purchases the other 1037 acres from Southern Vision for $1.7 million.