WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — Warner Robins Mayor Randy Toms recorded hours of conversations between himself and Economic Development Director Gary Lee.
13WMAZ obtained copies of the recordings through an open-records request.
The tapes span nearly a year, beginning soon after Toms says an investigation was launched, at Gary Lee's request, into an alleged forgery at city hall. The recordings continued intermittently until this spring.
Toms says Lee alleged a city employee forged his name on a document early in the summer 2018, which is something Lee's attorney, Preston Haliburton, denies. In March 2019, Lee was indicted for falsely reporting a crime and making a false statement. Haliburton maintains his client committed no crime.
The recordings offer a window into a turbulent year at Warner Robins City Hall.
Toms, Lee discussed alleged forgery, phone-tapping
In a July 27, 2018 call, Toms tells Lee "forgery and and phone-tapping has [sic] both been alleged."
In an interview Friday, Toms said Lee made the forgery allegation -- something Lee denies in multiple recordings.
Toms said a sitting Warner Robins council member alleged that the Warner Robins Police Department was tapping his phone.
Several other council members, according to Toms, said they believed they were also being phone-tapped, but did not say who they thought was behind it. Toms would not say who made those allegations.
Acting Warner Robins Police Chief John Wagner categorically denied the phone-tapping allegation, saying "Warner Robins PD has not tapped anybody's phone."
Toms talked about calling in FBI
In that same July 27, 2018 recording, Toms says "My next step is to call in the FBI" because the GBI and the Houston County Sheriff's Office are "not taking it."
Lee responds, "I really don't want that type of mess on my city hall but if that's where we have to go, we have to go."
In an interview Friday, Toms confirmed he did call the FBI about those allegations, but said he had no knowledge what came of that.
Kevin Rowson, public-affairs specialist in the FBI's Atlanta office, would not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation -- as is standard FBI policy.
Former Lee assistant also talked about FBI
It's at least the second time in recent months the specter of an FBI investigation has been mentioned at city hall.
In May, Warner Robins Economic Development Office employee Kimberly Black sued Lee for libel, slander, and false accusations of crimes. She also sued the city for allegedly retaliating against her for cooperating in law enforcement investigations.
In her suit, she claims the FBI questioned her about Lee.
Black is still employed by the economic development department, but currently works in the human resources department, according to city spokesperson Mandy Stella.
On Friday, Haliburton said "Gary has not been in contact with the FBI, but we welcome a GBI and FBI investigation into personnel files and other issues surrounding what we believe to be impropriety."
Are secret recordings legal?
Toms says Lee was the only city employee he recorded and said Lee did not know he was being taped.
Georgia is a 'one-party consent' state, which means it's legal to record a conversation you're a part of without the consent of the other people involved.
However, Gary Lee's attorney Preston Haliburton argues this case is different.
He says Lee initially approached Toms as a "whistleblower" exposing alleged "improper handling" of city personnel files. Haliburton said it was "improper and bad public policy" for Toms to secretly record Lee.
Asked if the recordings were illegal, Haliburton said "that's for a judge to determine."
Warner Robins City Attorney Jim Elliott disagreed, saying "I just don't think there's anything under the whistleblower statute that overrides" the mayor's right to record a conversation he was involved in.
As with most legal questions, the responsibility for answering it will likely fall to a judge.
Council members respond to alleged phone-tapping
Councilman Daron Lee said Friday he was familiar with the allegation that the city was tapping council members' phones, but would not identify who made it. He said some council members are "cautious" in their use of city-issued cell phones out of a concern for privacy.
Councilman Larry Curtis said he had not heard of any allegations of phone-tapping.
Councilman Keith Lauritsen said he didn't know anything about the allegation. "I really think that is just a rumor," he said. "I don't believe it to be true at all."
When asked if he had heard about the allegation or knew anything about it, Councilman Tim Thomas responded with a text message asking "Who did this come from?" He did not provide further comment.
Council members Carolyn Robbins and Clifford Holmes have not returned our request for comment. If they do, their responses will be added in.
Councilman Clifford Holmes said he neither knew of the allegation nor made it.
Gary Lee might sue the city
Asked if it was fair to single out one employee for recording, Toms said it "absolutely" was because he felt it was necessary to "protect" himself from what are, in his view, false accusations.
In his telling, Gary Lee initially told Toms a city employee forged his name on a city document. After the Houston County Sheriff's Office cleared that city employee, Toms says, Lee changed his story. At that point, Toms says, he felt he should start recording their conversations for protection.
Haliburton disputed that, and said "The number of improper actions by the mayor and others with the city in their job capacity have left us no choice but to file suit at this point."
So far, that suit has not been filed but an ante litem notice filed in June suggested Lee could sue the city for potentially as much as $10 million.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to Kimberly Black as a former Economic Development Department employee currently employed in the Human Resources Department. Black is currently working in the HR department but is still considered an Economic Development Department employee, according to City spokesperson Mandy Stella.