North Lee faces criminal investigation

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TUPELO – Lee County prosecutor James Moore plans to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing related to the North Lee County Water Association, a nonprofit organization that recently fired a whistleblowing employee for disclosing the company’s 2013 audit, a public document.

NOBLE

NOBLE

Moore, himself a member of the nonprofit cooperative water provider, said information provided in the audit and additional information he has learned warrants a criminal investigation.

Sonny Noble, 31, was fired Friday after the Daily Journal published financial mismanagement, non-compliance with a $1.2 million federal loan and broken laws revealed in the company’s fiscal year 2013 audit.

The prosecutor decided to investigate activities North Lee after Noble shared information the fired outside maintenance supervisor has collected for months.

“He’s come to see me and about some of the concerns he has in connection with the audit and other things he sees going on there,” Moore said. “After meeting with him, I think they’re worth looking into.”

North Lee board president Terry Anderson and board attorney Bill Beasley did not respond Tuesday to Daily Journal requests for comment.

Noble gained notoriety in 2011 after after whistleblowing on corruption and criminal activity related to the water association. Employees worked on the clock on a NLCWA board member’s property, and then-general manager Dan Durham falsified federal water quality reports and received a federal court conviction and three years probation.

All board members resigned then, leading to a new group of trying to correct shady behavior and questionable decision-making.

However, the 2013 audit showed the nine-person board hasn’t corrected potentially illegal actions of not paying employees and has unaccounted for money of up to $14,164. Noble also reported current North Lee manager Jim Banker purchased a truck for his use without formal board approval.

The audit questioned the water association’s purchase of a high-milage vehicle. Records show Banker drives a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado that listed 173,877 miles when purchased; however, paperwork indicates the vehicle’s odometer does not reflect actual miles.

Recently concerns with NLCWA emerged as the water association continues negotiations related to ceding territory served in Tupelo’s recently annexed areas. North Lee also has received approval for a $8.9 million federal loan for water system improvements, but Tupelo objects have limited progress for drilling six new water wells and installation of more tanks.

Noble has said he will push for a vote among the water association’s 4,260 members to return him to work. For a vote to happen, about 230 association members must sign a petition calling for the action during a special meeting.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com

This is the 4th article in this series. If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 yet, check them out.