“Blatant conflict of interest” leads to censure of Macon Water Authority board member

Through his company, District 2’s Desmond Brown billed the authority for more than $46K for a client’s flood damage

Former+District+Attorney+David+Cooke%2C+left%2C+delivers+his+special+counsel+report+on+Macon+Water+Authority+Board+Member+Desmond+Brown+during+a+called+meeting+Thursday.+

Liz Fabian

Former District Attorney David Cooke, left, delivers his special counsel report on Macon Water Authority Board Member Desmond Brown during a called meeting Thursday.

The Macon Water Authority plans to censure one of its board members following 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

Desmond Brown

In Cooke’s report delivered to the authority Thursday, 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.

Macon Water Authority special counsel David Cooke passes out copies of his report on the conduct of MWA Board Member Desmond Brown during a called meeting Thursday. (Liz Fabian)

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.

‘This is a conflict of interest’

According to Cooke’s report, Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Bill Howell, who represents the county on the authority, said Brown had “been on a rampage” for weeks about Noble’s property damage.

Howell was at City Hall on Oct. 6 when Noble called about the flood on her property.

He went out to survey the damage and saw Brown arriving as Howell was leaving.

“I didn’t know he was working there as a contractor. He cannot represent us for stormwater and do the work,” Howell told board member. “This is a conflict of interest no matter which way you turn it.”

During the closed door meeting, Howell raised concerns about the “exorbitant” claim, according to Cooke’s report.

Cole Tidwell, the insurance agent for the Macon Water Authority, said he reviewed the claim and determined the authority was not negligent or liable. During the investigation, Cooke asked him to comment on the charges.

Tidwell said the $27,000 mitigation fee “seemed large” considering the size of Noble’s 1,100-square-foot-home and the 675-square-foot-basement that flooded.

Tidwell called the $13,000 fee to remove damaged property “excessive.” From his experience, larger houses would cost a fraction of that much, Tidwell said. The monthly $530 charge for storage was “more than double” what he would expect for an entire home.

The authority called in SERVPRO for a second opinion on the damage, but Noble and her independent insurance adjuster Audrey Hicks did not return calls to set up a time to inspect the home. When the authority tried again to arrange an inspection, Hicks said Noble had a death in the family and the property would not be available, according to the report.

“The amount of Noble’s claim appears excessive, potentially exposing Brown to criminal liability,” Cooke wrote in his report. “If the amount of this claim is so unreasonable that it constitutes a material misrepresentation, then Brown’s participation in the submission of this claim could be considered both insurance fraud and wire fraud.”

Following Cooke’s report to the authority, which Brown was not present for, Dwight Jones asked for the former DA’s opinion as to whether Brown would have been criminally liable had the claim been processed and paid.

“If that check had gone out, I think Mr. Adams is correct. It would have been a violation of ethics law and subject to removal,” Cooke said. “There’s an argument to say even his attempts could be basis for removal.”

Cooke and Jones noted that without the independent, third-party estimate of damages, prosecutors would not likely pursue the matter.

At the beginning of the year, adjuster Hicks sent a letter to the authority withdrawing Noble’s claim and indicating she believes the liability for the damage rests with Macon-Bibb County.

She has filed a similar claim for damages with the county, Cooke said.

“It’s my understanding it’s still pending,” Cooke said of invoices sent to the county.

Cooke also mentioned Hicks filed an insurance claim against Noble’s neighbor, saying the “easement/storm drain” that flooded Noble’s home “sits on your property,” according to the report. Noble appears to have abandoned that claim, as well, Cooke said.

The Center for Collaborative Journalism could not reach Brown for comment by phone or text Thursday night or Friday morning. He also initially declined to be interviewed by Cooke. Brown later agreed to cooperate, but did not respond to Cooke’s attempt to schedule a meeting.

“I think it’s crucial that MWA go on record and say this is not OK and this is not appropriate for board members to do,” Cooke said.

The authority voted unanimously to have Cooke draft a letter of censure to bring back to the board for approval next week.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.