By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – North Lee County Water Association board members have hired an attorney to investigate allegations of wrongdoing revealed last week by the Daily Journal.
But they might not have had the authority to do so, since most of them resigned last month.
Tupelo attorney Bill Beasley said he will perform a “complete and thorough investigation of the charges related to Mr. Durham and any relationship with Mr. Scruggs” and report findings back to the board.
He also will be at the water association’s annual meeting tonight.
Dan Durham is the water association supervisor whom employees allege sends them to work side jobs while on the clock at North Lee. They say the side jobs frequently occur on properties owned by longtime board President Mitchell Scruggs.
Durham and Scruggs have denied the claims.
Beasley said the association’s other seven board members contacted him Friday and asked him to launch an objective, independent investigation. Scruggs was not involved in that decision, he said.
“I told them that I would not be involved if Mitchell was going to be involved,” Beasley told the Daily Journal on Monday. “I thought he should be excluded from the deliberations or the efforts we make.”
Joining the investigation is Greg Jarrell, a certified public accountant with Franks, Franks & Jarrell. He said he will look at the association’s payroll records, time cards and job-order tickets.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Jarrell said.
But it’s unclear whether the board members who hired Beasley and Jarrell still serve in that capacity. According to minutes from the their most recent meeting on Sept. 6, everyone resigned but the two members who were absent – Hal Swann and Terry Herring.
With no apparent explanation, the minutes state that “the following board members have stepped down from their positions. They are no longer board members. They are only members of North Lee County Water Association who come and donate their time from each area from here on out.”
It then listed Mitchell Scruggs, Jimmy Bucy, Don Winders, Lamar Hunter, Wayne Fitzner and Bruce Parker.
Winders made the motion, and Hunter seconded it.
Beasley said he wasn’t aware of that action or where that leaves the association’s leadership.
North Lee’s bylaws state that a seven-member board governs the association. Each serves seven-year staggered terms and is elected to the board at the annual meeting.
The current board violated its own bylaws in April by taking on an eighth member outside of an annual meeting. And they’re violating state laws by serving terms that exceed five years.
The next annual meeting is tonight, and many of the association’s roughly 4,400 member customers plan to attend. But Beasley said he’s not sure how board member elections will take place.
The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the association’s office, 1004 Birmingham Ridge Rd.
Also planning to attend are Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, two PSC investigators and a PSC attorney, along with a representative of the Mississippi Rural Water Association.
Presley said his office is investigating allegations published by the Daily Journal and has contacted the state Attorney General’s office.
Attorney General spokeswoman Jan Schaffer said she could neither confirm or deny the office’s involvement.
Presley’s investigators also served each board director – or former board director – a letter explaining their duties according to state law and promising to hold them accountable if they don’t comply. The letter also urges them to listen to customer concerns tonight and respond accordingly.
None of the men served notified investigators that they had resigned, Presley said. Beasley also said the group acted as though they still sat on the board.
Customers “are going to go to the public meeting Tuesday night and they want answers and, daggommit, they deserve answers,” Presley said. “What’s going to be the test here is whether these eight men will answer to the public and take action.”
But even Presley said he’s unsure what those men actually can do, since all but two stepped down last month.
In the meantime, Presley said he has instructed his staff to collect water samples from every customer who complains about poor water. The Mississippi Department of Health also is collecting samples from throughout the district, said its spokeswoman Liz Sharlot. Those samples will be tested for bacteria.
The two agencies’ actions come on the heels of numerous customer calls about dirty, oily and foul-smelling water in the days following a Daily Journal report about alleged wrongdoing in the association.
A Daily Journal reporter had spotted two association employees on Sept. 27 fixing shutters at a south Tupelo apartment building during their normal working hours. Both employees said Durham sent them to do the work and that they had punched in that morning at North Lee.
Durham denied this, saying employees work for his private, side business during their time off and that he pays them cash from his own pocket for services rendered. Scruggs admitted he hires Durham for a variety of jobs unrelated to the water association but said he never saw association employees perform the work.
Meanwhile, the Daily Journal found discrepancies in employees’ time cards and discovered that Durham’s grandson, who has worked at the association since his junior year in high school, clocks in daily but never clocks out.