The Fat Lady is looking through her sheet music

After 8.5 years, a lot of questions about Plant Washington, Cobb EMC, and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company created by Dwight Brown while he ran the state’s largest electric co-op, have been answered after a forensic audit conducted for Cobb EMC was released by Channel 2 News in Atlanta last week. (A forensic audit is a type of financial audit that is conducted concerning possible fraud or misconduct.)

The document, which includes a 150+ page Executive Summary, also shines a bright light on Plant Washington, which Washington EMC leaders spent $1Million pursuing. Allied Energy Services, run by Brown’s crony Dean Alford, holds a no-bid contract to develop Plant Washington.

The audit includes some big numbers. Dwight Brown and his wife Mary Ellen, received over $20Million in payments, loans, benefits, and preferred stock from Cobb EMC and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company, established in 1998 under Brown’s directive.

Brown’s private business partner and Vice-President at Cobb Energy, Dean Alford, hauled in about $18Million in payments and benefits, according to the audit.

Alford was selected by Brown to serve on the Cobb Energy Board. From there Alford landed CEO appointments to Allied Utility Network and Allied Energy Services, both owned by Cobb Energy. The auditors wrote that they, “found no evidence that Cobb Energy reviewed or approved any business plan for any of the businesses it acquired or created.” The audit states that, with the exception of perhaps two entities, neither of them being Allied Energy Services of Allied Utility Network, “all of the Cobb Energy spinoffs lost money, some on a grand scale.”

Cobb Energy gave Allied Utility Network $5.9M by moving money from the nonprofit Cobb co-op to Cobb Energy, the for-profit company that, according to the audit, was anything but a profit generator. The audit reports that Cobb Energy general ledger entries totaling $4M appear to have funded Allied Energy, but the bookkeeping isn’t precise (lack of clear bookkeeping records is just one of the many criticisms raised in the audit).

So what about Allied Energy Services, Plant Washington, and the group of co-ops, including Washington EMC, that organized Power4Georgians (P4G) to support Plant Washington (and another coal-fired plant to be located in Ben Hill County) that Brown and Alford were touting years ago?

Allied Energy Services, led by Alford, secured the no-bid contract to develop coal-fired Plant Washington, even though, as the audit states, “neither Alford nor Allied had any experience building or developing a coal-fired power plant, and witnesses indicated he was hired on the basis of a recommendation by Dwight Brown.”  Alford also heads P4G, which continues to promote Plant Washington even though all of the original EMCs that made up the consortium have ceased funding the project. P4G has already dropped plans for the second facility, which would have been called Plant Ben Hill.

Large tracts of land for both coal plant sites have been bought or tied up in contracts by several companies in amounts that totaled in the millions.

Where all that money came from is among the audit’s more interesting findings.

Monies paid to Cobb EMC by its members went to more than the for-profit companies owned by Cobb Energy. Both Alumni Properties LLC, which was involved in land acquisitions for the Ben Hill coal plant, and Buster and Brown, LLC, another private real estate venture, are linked to Dean Alford and his boss at Cobb Energy, Dwight Brown.

But there were even more land companies, including Ben Hill Timberland, LLC and Washington Timberland, LLC. Washington Timberland, LLC, as readers of Rural and Progressive may remember, has a history of late property tax payments in Washington County.

Dean Alford and P4G cancelled Plant Ben Hill over three years ago, but the audit raises questions about whether it was ever a real project.  The audit says that “Senior Cobb EMC officers…advised that Plant Ben Hill was a ‘decoy” designed as a subterfuge to keep land prices lower in Washington County.”

Which raises troubling questions about Plant Washington and whether it was ever a viable proposal, or merely a scheme designed to enrich P4G.  In January of 2012, Cobb EMC Board members ceased funding Plant Washington following a presentation by Alford, during which he said, “P4G never intended to build Plant Washington” and that, “P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.”  Unfortunately, it took many more months before Washington EMC followed Cobb EMC’s lead.

I happened to attend the invitation-only announcement for Plant Washington at the end of January 2008. The event was attended by former Washington CEO Frank Askew, then CFO and now Washington EMC CEO Wendy Sellers, Washington County Industrial Development Authority Chair, and Sandersville Railroad stockholder Hugh Tarbutton, and other Tarbutton family members.  At that time, Alford was clear in stating that Plant Washington would be built, owned, and operated by P4G members to provide affordable power to co-op members.

“Senior Cobb EMC officers interviewed advised that Plant Washington is now dormant,” according to the audit.

There’s a lot of information to digest in the 150+ page audit, which was requested by the Cobb EMC Board members elected after Brown and his cronies were ousted from the electric co-op almost four years ago. Last week Cobb County Prosecutor Don Geary told Channel 2 News in Atlanta that additional criminal charges could result from the findings.

The audit concludes with this statement, “This report has clearly demonstrated that how the former CEO made business and accounting decisions from which he and his friends profited. There was no effective compliance and ethics program and no oversight on the part of the Board of either entity, Cobb Energy or Cobb EMC to stop the activities perpetuated by the former CEO.”

It is time for Washington EMC leaders to come clean with its members and the larger community about the waste of member resources that Plant Washington has been from the beginning. Members expect and deserve the truth. We must hold them, and all our county leaders, accountable for the boondoggle they signed us up for over 8.5 years ago.

Is Washington County becoming a mecca for renewable energy?

Governor Deal has announced that General Biofuels will build a $60M facility in Washington County to manufacture wood pellets for fuel production in Europe. As European countries shutter both coal and nuclear and switch to renewable fuels sources, the demand of wood pellets continues to create business here in the United States. The plant will be located just blocks off Highway 15 on Waco Dr., and production is slated for early 2014 according to Deal’s office.

This plant will employ 35 people and also benefit other local businesses both during and after construction (i.e. work boots and clothing, meals out, all types of office and plant facility supplies, safety training). All of these jobs are the direct result of companies using renewable fuel sources.

Business will increase for Sandersville Railroad and Norfolk Southern as these two rail lines will move the pellets to the Port of Savannah for shipping overseas. What I have said  many times over bears repeating here: I am glad to see a business succeed, including the Tarbutton’s privately held railroad.  I can’t support Plant Washington because the project will harm the air, water, and health of local residents near the plant as well as downwind and downstream. Plant Washington is a good example of putting personal profits ahead of a community.

Charles Lee with the Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Authority told me he can’t provide information on public facility bonds or tax abatements as those details are still in negotiation. Regardless of the project, I urge the County Commissioners to carefully consider all projects involving taxpayer dollars.

Local citizens need to pay attention as well. The county can issue bonds through the Public Facilities Authority without any taxpayer input except comments that citizens may make at a county commission meeting. Voter approval is not required for issuing these types of bonds.

There is still a lot to learn about General Biofuels. At face value it is certainly a much more progressive and promising economic option for Washington County and our neighbors than coal, for which local leaders should be commended.

 

The fog is lifting on a “smoke and mirrors guy”

The Marietta Daily Journal’s “Around Town” column confirms what many of us have suspected for almost four years: Dean Alford never intended to build Plant Washington.

Cobb EMC is now posting board meeting minutes on its web site for access by co-op owner-members (pass word protected with no ability to electronically copy or print). The minutes from the January 24 meeting where Dapper Dean made a final pitch to convince the co-op to continue bankrolling his project have now been posted.

The MDJ reports from the minutes, “Mr. Alford … commented that coal is still the backbone of the country and that it is important to have a diversified portfolio of energy. Power4Georgians owns the permits but he stated that P4G never intended to build Plant Washington. He stated P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.” (emphasis added).

The MDJ goes on to say about the project. which Cobb EMC spent at least $13.5M on,  “The power plant was the ‘baby’ of now-indicted ex-Cobb EMC head Dwight Brown and his sidekick Alford, who also served as vice chairman of corporate spinoff Cobb Energy. ”

The Marietta newspaper quotes a power industry expert in “Around Town” about the possibility of selling the permits if they could be secured, “As for the argument that the permits could be sold? “Good luck,” our first industry source said. “Who would buy those, if Cobb and others are saying they don’t need all that power?”

The MDJ quotes a second industry expert saying, “I questioned myself if they ever intended to build it, and I’m convinced that if they had pursued that course, it would have driven Cobb EMC into bankruptcy. But I think Dean’s a smoke-and-mirrors guy who’ll say anything to keep his business going.”

I saw the smiling faces at the Washington EMC when Plant Washington was announced in January 2008 because I was invited to the very hush-hush event. The Washington EMC Board of Directors, CEO Frank Askew, Dean Alford, Chamber President Theo McDonald, and Hugh Tarbutton Sr. were all grins despite Dean’s statement that they were counting on “some environmentalists” trying to stop the plant.

My eyes, like those of others in the room, were opened wide that day. We heard the promises ourselves: Plant Washington would be built, owned, and operated by the co-ops.

I didn’t know much about energy production that afternoon, and no one would have accused me of being an environmentalist. And I sure didn’t know anything about being a good co-op owner-member.

I still have a lot to learn about energy production. But now I am a flag waving, treehugging, dirt worshipping environmentalist. And the good co-op owner-member? I’m working tooth and nail on that too.

Flannery O’Connor could have written this

Today the team I play on stepped our game up to a higher level. We started together to stop Plant Washington, a coal plant supported locally by the Tarbuttons (Southerners know to how things happen in a “one family county.”). The more my friends and neighbors, along with our partners, learned about our respective electric co-op’s  governance and business relationships, the more tangled the story line became.

This story is set in a rural community blanketed with tall trees, a black water river, and, because it is the rural South, a swamp. Another chapter was published today, and this one has a picture that outlines the characters and the plot.

The plot picked up again this morning. Some of the characters left early on in the story. Others held on into the fourth year since the story outline was announced in Sandersville. One of the lead characters, Dwight Brown, awaits trial on 35 indictments which include racketeering, theft, making false statements, and witness intimidation. At least one forensic audit is in the near future which may reveal yet more intrigue.

The story isn’t over, but this much is certain: it hasn’t played out like the writers announced in late January 2008. Flannery O’Connor loved a good plot twist too.

 

HB 475 lets the fox run the hen house

Just to give folks a quick perspective on some things that are concerning to some taxpayers in Washington County, GA where I live: my General Assembly Representative in the House, Mack Jackson, who was clearly raised to be polite and considerate, ushered a bill through the General Assembly after Plant Washington ( a proposed $2.1B+ coal fired power plant which lacks a pro forma estimate) was announced. The bill allows for a public facilities authority to issue bonds on projects without taxpayer input at the polls.

That means county bonds could be issued for Plant Washington, as well as other projects, putting all taxpayers on the hook should the bond-funded project go belly up. At that time, and today as well, the Industrial Development Authority is chaired by Hugh Tarbutton, and his nephew Ben Tarbutton III, serves as the Secretary. The Tarbuttons own considerable tracts of land near the Plant Washington site, with, unless things have changed recently, Hugh owning a large chunk of land where the plant would be built.

One might think the sale of thousands of acres would be motivation enough for supporting a coal plant located almost 30 miles from the river that Power4Georgians hopes has enough water in it to keep the plant operating (16M gallons of water a day is a lot).

But the 120 rail cars of coal required each day to fire the plant have to get there somehow. Fortunately Washington County has a shortline railroad which is privately held. The President of Sandersville Railroad is Hugh Tarbutton. Ben Tarbutton III is an assistant Vice-President. Other officers include Ben Tarbutton, Jr. as Vice-President,  and Charles Tarbutton, assistant Vice-President. (What doesn’t come in by rail will be trucked in. If you own a railroad why not diversify and own a trucking company too?)

Which brings us to the vote in the Georgia General Assembly on HB 475 on Thursday, which Mack Jackson supported (he also serves on the House Economic Development and Tourism  Committee where the bill originated although he is not listed as a co-sponsor). In a nutshell, HB 475 allows industrial development authorities to issue bonds to finance projects that involve private developers. Projects can include railroads used for cargo and freight transport.

And then it gets even scarier. HB 475 provides a development authority “unfettered authority” to define projects involving public and private entities, its decisions about projects “shall not be subject to review”, and the development authority shall have the authority to issue bonds. That seems like a lot of power rested in the hands of people who are not elected by the citizens at all, but rather appointed.

I wondered who in the transportation industry might have supported Mack’s campaigns. In 2008 Ben Tarbutton (no indication of Jr or III) contributed $500.00, Hugh was good for $300, Ben III weighed in at $250.00 and Charles added $250.00 to Mack’s campaign funds.  In 2010, during a three day period, Ben Jr, Ben III, and Hugh each contributed $250.00 to Jackson’s campaign coffers. During the session legislators can’t accept campaign donations (although they are free to be entertained by lobbyists) so who knows what the 2012 campaign reports will tell us.

HB 475 is so far from good legislation that late this afternoon Tom Crawford quotes one legislator saying, “they could be contributing to ‘the biggest scam going in the state of Georgia today.’ Crawford’s article quotes Representative Mark Hatfield (R-Waycross) saying, “It’s the biggest scam in the state of Georgia today. We know it’s going on all over the state.” (Hatfield is the attorney trying to have Obama removed from the Democratic primary ballot in Georgia because both of his parents weren’t natural born citizens. His argument is that the Framers of the Constitution really meant the President must be at a minimum second generation American).

Should I be afraid, or consoled, that Mark Hatfield thinks HB 475 is a bad piece of legislation? Politics makes for strange bedfellows. My goal is to avoid being run over by a train.