Former Polk County Public Safety Director Randy Lacey will get a written response from officials following a more than 90 minute hearing with the Personnel Committee on Tuesday morning, in which he took ultimate responsibility for issues with audit paperwork, but placed blame on a subordinate and others for the problems that caused him to lose his job.
Lacey was terminated from his job as Public Safety Director by County Manager Matt Denton on April 9 after a decade of service to the county, based on a letter from the Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund to the county informing them that his affidavits for volunteer service time would no longer be accepted when the department’s fund didn’t come back with a clean audit.
The hearing began this morning with Lacey first objecting to the short time frame for him to prepare his appeal before the personnel committee, but was still able to read from a multi-page statement and field questions from Commissioners Hal Floyd, Linda Liles, Scotty Tillery and County Attorney Brad McFall during the hearing.
“I talked to my attorney and they weren’t able to attend on such short notice, so I am here under somewhat duress,” Lacey said.
When further questioned about his hire of an attorney, Lacey said he had not formally employed one at this time but had consulted one by phone. Following the hearing on Tuesday, Lacey did walk next door from the County Administration offices to the law offices of Parker and Lundy.
Lacey also objected to his termination by Denton, since he took the meaning of the County Commission having authority over approval of his hire as they also having say over whether he could be dismissed from his job. McFall responded later to the statement following Lacey’s lengthy explanation of events, Denton as the Chief Administrative Officer for the county in his role as manager has the right to fire any employee within the county.
The difference is that with department heads like Lacey’s former role, he has additional rights to appeal the termination process – all the way to the full Board of Commissioners. Should his appeal at the committee level be denied, he can then seek a further hearing before the full board.
Lacey’s full accounting of what happened began with a letter received by the EMA dated August 27, 2020, notifying Lacey of the pending audit of the 2014 to 2018 submissions for the paperwork to back up affidavits made swearing the time spent by volunteer firefighters participating in the fund is correct.
He then reported a conversation with David Luther of the Georgia Firefighter’s Pension Fund (GFPF) prior to the notice that they would be audited for their paperwork proving hours served from 2014 to 2018. Lacey said he explained the volunteer service of former Cedartown Fire Chief Darrell Stephens as fire investigator to Luther, and that he was providing scenarios about how to credit Stephens for time worked as a volunteer investigator for the county without having him assigned to a station.
“Luther stated he understood, also nodding in agreement to my scenario and stated: “They (referring to the Georgia Firefighter’s Pension Fund) call it Call jumping or hopping, and he could receive credit for that call,” Lacey said.
The former Public Safety Director who among his previous duties was fire chief also claimed that he asked for proper forms for the County Volunteer Firefighters who are part of the pension plan to submit to the fund. Lacey told the committee that he had asked Luther about forms available for use by volunteer firefighters in the county and was never instructed to use anything other than what was already available to the county officials at the time, which the county fire department’s Training Officer Jason Shuman was said by Lacey to have handed over to Luther in a binder.
The fund not controlled by the state itself but a Board of Trustees with an Executive Director provides a supplemental retirement benefit for volunteer firefighters who pay $25 in dues.
Per the Georgia Firefighter’s Pension Fund website, a firefighter receives on average a $940 premium on a monthly basis once they are retired and claim the benefits of being part of the fund. These are paid for mainly by a 1% premium tax placed on fire insurance statewide, but also by active dues for those involved around the state. The county doesn’t make any financial contribution to the fund at all.
Forms for the state pension fund are publicly available on the Georgia Firefighter’s Pension Fund website for member signup, departments to submit information, volunteer forms, and for insurance companies as well.
Among those forms in question is the Station Duty form seen below:
The form itself used by the GFPF is simple: name, station duty location, date, beginning and end time, total hours accrued, and the various purposes of fire station duty.
Along with that, forms are available for Special Volunteer Service (like going out to eligible calls) and an Additional Training Credit form.
At the bottom of all the forms, the GFPF’s form clearly states on the bottom that both the member and chief’s signature are required to be credited for the time served and that the parties understand it is a sworn affidavit. In fact, the form makes that clear here:
“I further acknowledge that O.C.G.A. 47-7-126 (a) provides that any person who knowingly makes any false statement in an attempt to defraud the Fund shall be guilty of a crime.”
That’s in comparison to one of the forms provided by the County to prove volunteer fire service, which does not include any requirement to swear the document signed is the truth, or warning anyone of criminal liability they might face.
Here’s that form, which is given to volunteers at Station 9, as provided by Polk County. It was not immediately clear if each station’s form follows the same format:
In the hearing, Lacey claims that he was given verbal consent to provide Stephens with what he referred to as “call hopping,” or being given credit for service on a call that Stephens worked previously but applying those hours to a different call.
Lacey said that once he received the OK to go ahead with this protocol for Stephens from Luther during their conversation, he proceeded to provide him with hours based on his volunteer service as a fire investigator but under those conditions described above.
With this information in hand, Lacey moved forward with the audit and said he delegated the task amid the COVID-19 crisis and daily duties to his administrative assistant Landon Hendrix, and that when given the task he was assured time and again that Hendrix had everything in order. Lacey also described a meeting regarding concerns Hendrix had about the audit with Assistant County Manager Connor Hooper and Denton, in which the county management wanted to discuss concerns that had been raised about the audit paperwork. Lacey then went on to explain that just a day before the audit was due, Hendrix was allowed to go on a training session with the state and that he left the paperwork organizing incomplete and in disarray at the Emergency Management Agency before he left.
Hendrix had no comment about Lacey’s description of events as the former Public Safety Director testified how they transpired. Lacey did report giving Hendrix a verbal reprimand over the situation, but that no further disciplinary action was taken. When questioned by Commission Chair Hal Floyd, Lacey didn’t report any issues prior to that with Hendrix’s work, or any documented issues since.
Claiming that he had no choice, Lacey said he attempted to re-organize the paperwork in an 8-hour time frame and submit it on time. When asked following the hearing today why he didn’t seek additional time from the GFPF to complete the submission of proof of previous affidavits as required by the pension fund management, he said when given a deadline he always has completed it on time.
“I attempted to start sorting through thousands of documents and files in an attempt to get the documents and files in some kind of order to be ready for Luther the next morning,” Lacey said. “I worked well past 5 p.m. in an attempt to complete an incomplete task that was assigned to Hendrix. I personally do not know if the audit information was correct in nature.”
Lacey’s statement went onto explain that in late March, he received a letter from the GFPF in response to the paperwork filed to prove the work of volunteer firefighters and was greeted with a problem. They found that information he submitted for the audit was inaccurate or did not match with previous affidavits signed, and took away his ability to further submit paperwork.
He read what the GFPF sent him as part of his prepared testimony about the matter:
“This is what was stated: “The review of the documentation provided by your department does not support the affidavits that was supplied by you and provided by the fund. The Board of Trustees have determined that your affidavits are unreliable. The fund will longer accept any affidavits signed by you and provided to the fund. The determination that I knowingly made a material false statement, or falsified, or permitted to be falsified documents provided to this fund in an attempt to defraud this fund.”
Lacey followed that up with “I did none of this, I never done anything like that.”
He reported that despite a 60-day appeal that he has to seek his standing back with the GFPF’s Board of Trustees, that information wasn’t taken into account by Denton when he submitted his termination letter. Lacey said he tried to explain the situation to Denton, but was met with a response solely focused on the information he had received from the GFPF, and not taking into account what he stated occurred.
The accusations against the County Manager weren’t limited to just the immediate issue of Lacey’s termination over the GFPF letter. He also stated that Denton previously made the work environment hostile, questioned and negatively commented on the response by the Emergency Management Agency and with other departments following the damage inflicted by March 25 storms, and that he had placed a new rescue vehicle for the Cedartown Fire Department into the Polk County Volunteer Fire Department’s capital improvement budget over allowing Lacey to purchase a new truck to allow him to respond to scenes all across the county without his knowledge. Lacey reported to the committee that during several of these meetings, Assistant County Manager Connor Hooper was also present as a witness.
He also reported that after he was officially terminated by Denton, he was allowed to take the county’s truck back to the EMA building, leave his belongings within his office until the appeal process was completed, and that did not follow proper county policies for employees terminated. He told the committee that he was given only 45 minutes to choose between resignation and enjoying only partial benefits, or being terminated and receiving no benefits at all. Lacey said he took the advice of an attorney and told Denton he would have to be fired and refused to sign any documents.
Of final note, he threw down a charge of potential age discrimination based on personal comments he claimed Denton made when he was terminated.
“Matt then asked me if I had a ride. I advised Matt that I would call one of my daughters, or Hendrix – At the time Matt had somewhat of a surprised look on his face – to pick me up or I would walk to Cave Spring if I had to,” Lacey said. “Matt then stated ‘well, you’re getting too old to walk. Let me give you a ride.’ I denied his offer.”
Neither Denton or Hooper had any comment about the accusations, citing the issue as a continued personnel matter that prohibit any further statements.
County Commissioners did ask specific questions about the process by which firefighters fill out their forms and return them – which Lacey explained was not being completed in a timely fashion despite the use of fax machines in recent years to submit them, and requests to get better technological assets to speed up the process.
McFall pointedly asked Lacey why the process with filing was so difficult when it seemed to simply be a matter of pulling information out of a filing cabinet, and inquired about what Lacey understood exactly to be what the fund was accusing him of at this time. Lacey also during questioning from McFall that “half of the files weren’t there” when submitted, despite the only requirement being were to pull the files out, place them in a box and send them along with Luther, representing the GFPF.
“We heard a very lengthy explanation of conduct, and at its very core the fund has accused you of falsifying documents,” McFall said. “You’ve been accused of falsifying documents, and those falsifications occurred under oath… So you’ve been essentially by a third party been accused of committing a crime.”
McFall questioned Lacey as to who was responsible several times before the hearing was over.
“So we have blame on Polk County forms, Matt Denton, Mr. Hendrix, Mr. Luther, and you’re saying that despite how many years in Public Service?… That after 40 years in Public Service that includes service as a Fire Chief and EMA Director, you didn’t have the ability or understanding that the fund had forms to fill out to properly report service?”
The former Public Safety Director then did state that he was only familiar with a station duty form, affidavit, and the application to join the pension fund was the only ones that he had seen from the GFPF in his time with Polk County. He also took some issue with the fact that when McFall questioned why some documents were missing from the audit and the difficulty of filing the paperwork with the state and Lacey’s response of “I hired someone to do that.”
“At some point, you’ve got to claim ownership as the department head,” McFall said. “When your department is being audited, that you ensure the documents that they are asking for get to them.”
“I hired a person. Does Matt Denton look at everything that comes across his desk?” Lacey responded.
“I guarantee you that if Matt Denton is signing a sworn statement swearing under oath to the accuracy of the documentation, he’s going to look at it,” McFall said.
He did say again that “the documentation was there when I signed the affidavit” in the years 2014 to 2018, but not there in complete form when submitting it to the state.
Lacey did ultimately admit that it was his responsibility to ensure that paperwork – especially audit paperwork that should be on file and should be available to anyone in a timely fashion.
The Personnel Committee moved to a closed session following the hearing to discuss the testimony provided by Lacey and his responses to questions. They have 10 days to file a response to his appeal with either allowing him to come back, or uphold Denton’s decision to terminate Lacey’s employment with the county.
Lacey remains in his job as Fire Chief of the City of Cave Springs. He told the Personnel Committee that they were awaiting for the GFPF’s decision upon his appeal of their claims of fraud in his paperwork. He has a history of more than 40 years of work in Public Safety in several area departments.
“The Mayor advised me that it wasn’t really anything to do with Cave Springs,” he said.
When asked after the hearing why he didn’t seek additional time to get the documents in order and submit them, he claimed pride at being able to meet deadlines was a motivating factor. In hindsight, he would not have made the same decision twice.