MACON, Ga. — Parts of this story were written using previous coverage by Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian.
In a 4-1 vote, the Macon Water Authority publicly censured one of its board members Thursday after an investigation into a potential conflict of interest.
The authority hired former Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney David Cooke to investigate the conduct of District 2 Board Member Desmond Brown.
In Cooke’s report delivered to the authority last week, he concluded Brown attempted to violate state ethics rules, which had he succeeded, could have removed him from office.
The investigation stemmed from an incident in which Brown’s company, Blue Armour Network of America, billed the authority for almost $47,000 in flood damages on behalf of a client. In mid-October MWA employees and board members sounded alarm bells and warned Brown of a potential conflict of interest in his fervent pursuit of the claim.
He responded to those allegations by saying: “These are my constituents. Can’t nobody stop me,” according to interviews Cooke conducted.
The authority’s Stormwater Management Utility determined it was not liable in this case because the flooding occurred on a private easement that was outside its jurisdiction. The authority had denied a similar claim on the property last August for the same reason.
As Brown persisted in pursuing payment, authority members learned more about his involvement in what was considered to be an inflated claim for Oct. 6 flood damage at the Lancerlot Place home of his Blue Armour client.
That homeowner, Diane Noble, alerted City Hall and multiple local leaders, including State Rep. Miriam Paris, about the flooding of her home during a fall deluge that led to flash flooding. Paris, whose late father Javors Lucas represented District 2 nearly 40 years, called Brown and gave him Noble’s address and he went over there.
According to invoices submitted to the Macon Water Authority, Brown’s disaster mitigation company later removed damaged items from the home, put them in storage and dried out the house.
Because some board members, including former insurance adjuster Valerie Wynn, thought the amount of the $46,612.72 insurance claim filed by Brown’s company was too high and “potentially fraudulent,” Board Member Dwight Jones suggested the authority hire an outside attorney to investigate.
Cooke said he spent hundreds of hours interviewing more than 20 people in the probe.
According to Cooke’s findings: “Brown openly advocated for the payment of this claim for his own financial benefit even though that payment would necessarily violate state ethics laws.”
Cooke also concluded; “The amount of Noble’s claim appears excessive, potentially exposing Brown to criminal liability.”
In citing Georgia law, Cooke said a board member is prohibited from taking any action “in which he knows or should know that he has a direct or indirect monetary interest…,” the report stated. Cooke also noted that Brown did not admit he had a monetary interest in Noble’s claim until after his colleagues discovered it on their own.
His profile on the MWA website makes no mention of the company or disaster mitigation services: “Mr. Brown’s professional career includes experience as an economic growth developer, a commercial mortgage broker, a loan officer, and as a certified investment banker.”
During the investigation, Noble told Cooke she had been a Blue Armour client for two years and was paying $99 a year for the “total disaster kit” that ensures someone would come out and make repairs when needed.
During an executive session Dec. 1, Noble presented her claim to the board after Brown was asked to leave the meeting. MWA attorney Virgil Adams advised Brown he had a conflict of interest and that if he was paid in connection with her claim “that would be a violation of the code of ethics.”
Adams urged Brown to hire his own attorney, but he declined, claiming “it’s not that serious.”
On Dec. 8, the authority held a work session on bylaws to explain proper chain of command for board members in dealing with staff. This followed Brown’s repeated contact with multiple Water Authority employees about the claim.
Following the work session, in an executive session to discuss Brown’s involvement, Adams asked Brown to leave since he was the subject of the discussion.
He paced in the hall and made phone calls before telling the Center for Collaborative Journalism: “I’m an elected official and I’m not running… I’m going right back in there and hold my head up high because I haven’t done anything wrong. Don’t just put me out and talk about me.”
While his colleagues were behind closed doors discussing the matter, Brown called and texted Mayor Lester Miller about holding a joint news conference. Brown wanted to explain to the public that they both inherited stormwater problems but “they were going to fix it together,” the report stated.
Miller, also an attorney, told Cooke that Brown came across “like he felt he needed cover for his conflict of interest and needed me to insulate him.”
Cooke’s report also said: “Brown mentioned that he found out he can’t get paid if the Macon Water Authority was on the hook for the water damage, but if Macon-Bibb was involved, he could get paid.”
Miller felt Brown was subject to “potential litigation” and declined to participate in a press conference.
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