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Challenge to Jones' candidacy dismissed
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Effingham County Commissioner Vera Jones is greeted by friends and supporters after a challenge to her candidacy was dismissed in a 3-1 vote by the elections board. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Vera Jones can continue her re-election bid, after the Effingham County Board of Elections voted 3-1 Friday morning to dismiss a challenge to her candidacy.

Jones, the 2nd District county commissioner, had about 60 supporters in attendance, who cheered and clapped as the decision was announced.

A challenge had been filed last month by Andrew and Jocelyn Brantley, who charged that Jones was holding more than $700,000 in county funds.

“It should have been over three or four different times by now,” said Jones. “The law is really clear. It was money we borrowed from the bank to do a project that the county was supposed to do. And they owed it to me as a lender, and they’re trying to come up with all kinds of false claims that I had county money. It was always our money we loaned the county.”

Jones was issued a check for $739,844 in February 2007. She sent the county an invoice for that amount to cover the costs of extending water and sewer lines to her developments that the county could not reach with its own lines in time.

“I can hold my head high because I’ve done nothing wrong,” Jones said.

“The system worked,” said Steven Scheer, Jones’ attorney in the matter. “The vast majority of people in Effingham County are hard-working, decent people who deserve to vote for the candidate of their choice. This is not Russia. This is not a place where you pick and choose who you want to run. You win an election, you don’t steal it.”

Warren Ratchford, who represented the Brantleys in the hearing Friday morning, said it is up to his clients to file an appeal.

“Andrew is a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Ratchford said. “His goal is to get the money back for the county. He intends to keep trying. I’m interested in him doing it. We’ll do the best we can with it. We tried to shed some light today, and I hope some light was shed.”

Had the hearing gone forward, each side was going to have five minutes for opening statements, followed by 90 minutes of testimony and evidence.

“This is not easy for any of us,” Ratchford said. “We’re just looking for a fair hearing.”

Ratchford also questioned the timing of the motion to dismiss, pointing out it had been filed at 3 p.m. the day before the hearing.

Check in question
The county was supposed to deliver water and sewer service to South Effingham Plantation and Buckingham Plantation, two of D.M. Jones Construction’s developments. But the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority loan fell through at the last minute, leaving the county unable to complete the work.

“The county went to D.M. Jones and said, ‘you’ve got to do it, or it’s not going to get done,’” Scheer said.

Jones’ company borrowed the money to extend water and sewer lines to the developments. The county was to repay the Joneses through impact fees collected.

“It would have been impossible,” Scheer said. “They were told no question the money was owed. That was money that was loaned from D.M Jones for the benefit of the county. The county did not live up to its obligation.”

The challenge said the county had agreed to pay Jones’ company back through impact fees, which were far less than the amount of the check issued to D.M. Jones Construction.

“A check was issued in error from Effingham County for over $739,000,” Ratchford said.

Within a few hours after receiving it, Jones converted it to a certified check, Ratchford said. A demand was made on her to return the money, he added, and she refused to do so.

Ratchford has several affidavits from those who were on the county commission at the time, stating the county did not authorize the check, was not obligated for the work and repeatedly asked for the money back. He also pointed out that nothing in the minutes of county commissioners’ meetings shows an authorization for the check remitted to D.M. Jones Construction.

“She cashed a check for $739,000 and used it for her own benefit,” he said. “She knows it. She admitted it on her Facebook page. Mrs. Jones was only to receive $147,500. But she took $739,844. We feel like the rest should be paid back. It is taxpayers’ money.”

Jones, however, countered that her company did the work the county could not itself perform.

“Did a payment get made to me in full that evidently they did not mean for their department to pay me in full at the time? Yes. Did I know that when it occurred? Absolutely not,” she said. “I had every reason to believe they had decided to do the right thing.”

The check in question, Scheer said, was made payable to D.M. Jones Construction, and “D.M. Jones is not a candidate for any office. It was money D.M. Jones Construction lent to the county.”

Scheer said the county attorney and another lawyer acknowledged there was no question as to the amount of payment, only as to its timing.

“Was Vera Jones a holder of public money or trust illegally or unaccounted for? That is the sole legal question,” he said. “Mr. Ratchford has not answered that one question. I submit to you that after seven years, if it had been illegal, then every one of them had a duty and obligation to get it back, or they would have been guilty of malfeasance in office.

“D.M. Jones Construction did not take any money that wasn’t deserved.”

More legal opinions
Jones and her legal team also pointed to letters from county attorney Eric Gotwalt and Chatham County attorney Jon Hart, who had been retained as counsel on another issue, for support. In his letter to commissioners last month, Gotwalt likened the payment to Jones to that of a credit card payment in excess of the monthly minimum.

“There was no question as to the amount owed, only as to the timing of the payment,” Gotwalt wrote. He said he also advised the board in 2007 that seeking legal action to reclaim the money would be barred  by the voluntary payment doctrine.

Scheer pointed out Jones since then has served on the board of education and the county commission since the check was issued to her company. He also said Ratchford has taken the challenge to the attorney general and the district attorney.

“Every one of them has said this is not illegal,” Scheer said.

The challenge said she is the holder of public money, illegally or unaccounted for, Scheer continued, but an opinion from the state attorney general’s office said she is not the holder of public funds.

“Honest people may disagree about many things. And they disagree about politics and they disagree about football,” he said. “But in this country, the one thing they don’t disagree about is if you take away the right of people to vote or choose, then our country falls. If it happens to Vera Jones today, who is it going to happen to next?”

The challengers have done something few have been able to do lately, Scheer said — they united Democrats and Republicans. Former Georgia secretary of state Kathy Cox, a Democrat, and current state Attorney General Sam Olens both found the challenge without merit, Scheer said.

“I don’t know how to say it any clearer,” he said. “The law is clear that the code section doesn’t apply to Mrs. Jones legally or factually,” he said. “There is absolutely no evidence that anybody has ever said that D.M. Jones Construction wasn’t owed the money.”

Ratchford said the response from the state attorney general’s office, from senior assistant attorney general Russell Willard, wasn’t an opinion on the matter.

“As to Mrs. Cox’s affidavit, does she know that she’s saying it’s OK to take a check from Effingham County that was made in error and cash that check and refuse to return the money?” Ratchford said. “Nowhere in this motion (to dismiss) do you find the issue before the board today.

“There is nothing that says you can’t use the plain language of the Constitution,” Ratchford said.

Ratchford also said the money spent for the check has harmed the county.

“People who are challenged, people who cannot get through the day without some kind of assistance, people who can’t find jobs, people whose jobs have been taken away because the county has paid, because of these kinds of actions, more than $16 million out of the county taxpayers’ money to cover all the issues the developers have had in this county,” he said. “We’re here on one little piece of it. But we’ve got to start one little piece at a time.”

Jones said it was the actions of previous boards of commissioners that resulted in the problems.

“Warren Ratchford disclosed what his issue is,” she said. “He blames developers for the $16 million worth of debt. The past county commissioners voted for the debt, up to $50 million. They used illegal zonings that required us to use water and sewer that did not exist. They made it all happen; we didn’t. There is nothing we have done wrong. My documents showed we followed the law, and they didn’t.”

Scheer filed a motion to disqualify, based on Ratchford’s use of a paralegal, Anthony Pignone, who had been disciplined by another bar association.

“It is with great reluctance I do so in this matter,” Scheer said. “The practice of law is a noble profession, and the practice of law has certain requirements. If a lawyer has been suspended, we take a dim view of having any contact with anybody in a legal matter.”

Ratchford countered that Pignone was allowed to practice in federal courts, and the motion to disqualify eventually was denied. He also called into question Jones’ behavior aside from the legal maneuvering.

“I’m tired of being blackmailed,” Ratchford said. “I’m tired of my clients being threatened. I’m here, and I’m going to stay here until we get some justice. There are a lot of people who know about the wrath of Vera. I’ve experienced it personally. I’ve got it served on me, the threats, the suits, et cetera, et cetera. We’re tired of it. Somebody had to stand up, and thank God Mr. Brantley was the one who decided to.”

Jones is being opposed in the May 20 Republican primary by former county commissioner chairman Dusty Zeigler.