The election of a county commissioner may rest on the desk of an Effingham County Superior Court judge.
Judge Gates Peed heard arguments for nearly an hour Thursday afternoon in the Ebenezer Courtroom, on Andrew Brantley’s appeal of the county elections board’s decision to dismiss his challenge to Vera Jones’ candidacy. Jones is running for re-election as the 2nd District county commissioner.
Former county commission chairman Dusty Zeigler is running against Jones, and both are running as Republicans. With no Democrats or others on the ballot, the seat likely will be decided in Tuesday’s general primary.
“She cannot run for public office in Effingham County holding over a half-million dollars of public money,” said attorney Warren Ratchford.
Ratchford, representing Brantley, asked Judge Peed to either disqualify Jones or send the matter back to the elections board for a full hearing in front of an administrative judge.
“The motion to dismiss has nothing to do with what was filed and Mr. Brantley’s challenge,” he said. “It totally skips over it.”
At the heart of Brantley’s initial challenge is a check for more than $739,000 remitted to Jones seven years ago. Brantley contends Jones’ candidacy is in question because she is the holder of public funds since she was only entitled to $147,500.
Ratchford said the contract between the county and DM Jones Construction and the state impact fee law are both clear as to how and how much her company should have been repaid.
“It was an error,” Ratchford said of the check. “No money was ever returned. We believe those to be taxpayer funds. Everybody involved admitted it was an error and there were requests to pay it back, and it’s been a bunch of excuses why she shouldn’t have to pay it back.”
Ratchford said the check given to Jones was converted to a cashier’s check within hours and before the county discovered it had been released in error. Affidavits from seven current and former county commissioners also spelled out the county asked for the money to be returned.
“A request was made to return the money, and Mrs. Jones refused,” he said. “Mrs. Jones understood the amount of money she was supposed to receive. Regardless, she kept the money. They gave all kinds of excuses why she kept the money, but none of the excuses hold water. WThere’s no doubt the money is gone, and there was a demand for the money.”
Jones’ attorney Steven Scheer argued that Jones’ company was due the money because it performed work the county was supposed to but didn’t.
“The county failed in its obligation to provide water and sewer,” he said. “Not only was the company entitled to the money, but they are owed money and they are still owed money. This was money owed to D.M. Jones for work the county had promised to do.
“D.M. Jones asked for repayment of money they had to borrow and expend to cover the county’s obligation,” Scheer continued. “There was no way the impact fees (collected) could have paid back the money owed to them. The whole thing was a mistake on the part of the county. But D.M. Jones stepped in. They could have said, ‘no, we’ll sue.’ But they didn’t.”
The county also has had seven years to ask for the money back, Scheer continued. Judge Peed asked if the county had ever sued to get the money back. Ratchford replied it has not.
“The county commission had an absolute duty to collect it back,” Scheer said.
Ratchford said Jones and her company promised to develop 299 lots in her developments.
“That hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t happened as of today,” he said.
For 299 lots and at $2,500 per lot in impact fees, the total would have been $747,500. For what was built at the time, Jones’ company should have been paid $147,500, Rafter said, and the excess over that is what she is holding in public money.
“Their statement that this is illusory is wrong, because those are her numbers,” he said.
Rafter said that as an officer of the corporation, Jones is the holder of public money, contrary to her declaration of candidacy.
Scheer countered that Jon Hart, the attorney for the Chatham County commissioners, and Effingham County attorney Eric Gotwalt said Jones’ company was owed the money.
Rafter said Gotwalt’s response was based on the voluntary payment statute and that the overpayment was a gift is true for some things.
“Except when there is fraud,” he said, adding that Jones made a false claim. “She got something she was not entitled to, and she kept it.”
Rafter continued that the law says any person holding public funds is barred from running for office, not just any public official.
Scheer said the judge shouldn’t let the challengers use the court system as an end run around the law.
“You win an election. You don’t steal it,” he said. “The voters of Effingham County are not village idiots. They deserve to vote for the candidate of their choice.”
Scheer added the challenge appears politically-motivated, stating it was done seven years after the payment because of opposition to how Jones has voted as a commissioner.
Though Brantley filed the challenge to Jones’ candidacy, the burden to prove she is qualified to run for office lies with Jones, not the challenger, Ratchford said.
“The burden is on them,” Ratchford said. “The county commission cannot give away $500,000,” Ratchford said. “There is no legitimate reason for it. There’s no invoice, only a three-line email. That’s it. She knows exactly how much money she was supposed to get.”
Scheer said as a historical figure once said, if you lie big enough and repeat it enough, it will be believed. The quotation, Scheer said, belonged to Adolf Hitler, and Ratchford took exception. Judge Peed said he will ignore any inflammatory statements.