BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) — Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable has called for commissioners and the director of a Bristol-area water utility to resign, a day after the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office (TCO) shared results of an investigation revealing nearly $1.7 million of “questionable payments.
Venable issued a news release Friday saying the TCO and Second Judicial District District Attorney Barry Staubus have kept his office informed about the investigation into the South Fork Utility District (SFUD). That investigation unearthed payments to several companies owned or invested in by SFUD District Manager Garry Smith, including well over $1 million in payments over four years for “most repair and maintenance services,” the TCO investigation states.
As News Channel 11 reported Thursday, TCO found multiple instances in which invoices for two different construction companies related to Smith had little to no documentation to show the work done or materials used. Smith owns H.S. Martin Construction, among several companies.
“Given the facts presented to my office, I urge the South Fork Utility District board of directors and the utility district manager to resign so operations can continue under new leadership while this matter is resolved by the State of Tennessee,” the release states.
The SFUD website lists James Graham as its head commissioner, Barry Jessee as secretary and Joe Warren as treasurer. The other members listed are Tim Leonard and Jason Webb.
The county mayor does not have the authority to remove board members as does the Comptroller and court systems, the release noted.
Read the full letter below:
The investigation has been frustrating for South Fork customer Debbie Gaminde. She moved to the district in December 2021 and has paid more than double the price of her previous home in Bristol, Virginia.
“The last thing I want to do is pay an elevated water bill to someone other than the utility district,” Gaminde said.
Gaminde said the news of the investigation made her lose faith in the South Fork Utility District. She supported Venable’s call for resignations.
“They should be aware of what’s been going on, and by the fact that they allowed that to happen they don’t need to be there any longer,” Gaminde said.
As the TCO investigation surrounding the alleged nearly $1.7 million of “questionable payments” by the Bristol utility continues, Venable stated he has no further comments surrounding the incident at this time.
A TCO audit of the district found the payments were a concern as far back as 2019.
TCO will remain involved as its utility management review board will take up the case when it meets on April 28. That board could require more training for SFUD’s commissioners or even go so far as having some of them removed.
The investigation noted six internal control and compliance deficiencies following a narrative of its results. It noted that SFUD commissioners “indicated they have corrected or intend to correct these deficiencies.”
District Attorney Barry Staubus said he plans to see what the management review board decides before proceeding with any potential civil or criminal action.
“They have the ability and the jurisdiction to look at this investigation, and determine the facts, and impose sanctions if that’s called for,” Staubus said.
His office has indicted a utility manager in the past, but Staubus said each case is different and he will need to learn more about the details of this one.
News Channel 11 reached out to South Fork Utility for comment but got no response.