North Lee whistleblower fired

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NOBLE

NOBLE

Updates: After being fired, Sonny Noble is now seeking his job back.

Yesterday: North Lee audit cites financial issues, was written after Sonny Noble provided information to Daily Journal investigative reporter Robbie Ward.

TUPELO – North Lee County Water Association’s outside maintenance supervisor was told Friday morning he was fired for what he believes is retaliation for sharing a public document that revealed non-compliance of a federal loan, widespread financial mismanagement and unaccounted for money.

North Lee employee Sonny Noble, 31, said he believes he was fired for providing a copy of the association’s fiscal year 2013 audit to the Daily Journal, the results of which were first published in Friday’s edition.

“I care about what’s right,” Noble said. “People need to know about this.”

Noble said two North Lee board members made the audit available to him to provide to a news organization to expose the nonprofit’s financial mess. He identified the board members as David Morgan and Mark Crockett, but neither would confirm Noble’s assertion.

Board members Donnie Lesley and Gordon Gibbons notified Noble of his termination Friday morning. They said it was based on time missed from work, said Noble, who also said his time away from work was approved by North Lee manager Jim Banker.

Sources close to the water association indicate Noble’s termination happened without prior knowledge of all board members, some of whom still haven’t received an explanation for the firing.

Board President Terry Anderson emailed the Daily Journal Friday declining to explain Noble’s termination.

“(I)t’s been a standing North Lee policy not to discuss personnel issues,” Anderson wrote.

Noble said he intends to appeal his firing by the two board members to the full board.

Jones & Jones Certified Public Accountants firm of Booneville presented audit findings to the North Lee board on Feb. 18. Anderson said earlier this week the audit wasn’t a public document. However, Mississippi’s Rural Water Association CEO and a spokeswoman for U.S. Department of Agriculture in Jackson said the document is a public record.

Federal Office of Management and Budget documents also state the audit should be available for public inspection unless restricted by law or regulation.

Audit findings included eight “material weaknesses,” practices that could lead to federal money being missing or misspent, or other issues that couldn’t be prevented, corrected or resolved in a timely manner.

Anderson provided a written response Thursday to audit findings, saying he believed North Lee currently complied with all laws and Rural Development loan requirements. However, a Rural Development loan specialist in the water and environmental division said loan recipients remain out of compliance until they provided board-approved budgets.

Anderson said the board still hasn’t approved an annual budget, an audit finding for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

Financial questions surrounding the water association come as it seeks to proceed with water system improvements funded through an $8.88 million federal loan. The city of Tupelo continues to object to the plan, which includes drilling water wells within city limits.

Noble has worked the rural water association just shy of six years and was the whistleblower who helped expose corruption in 2011 that led to resignations from the entire nine-member North Lee Board of Directors. Then North Lee manager Dan Durham pleaded guilty in 2012 to falsifying federal water quality reports and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Other misdeeds exposed during that period include employees performing work on private properties owned by then-board President Mitchell Scruggs. At one point, the FBI investigated alleged wrongdoing at the organization.

Daily Journal reporting of North Lee’s financial management problems, including failure to meet federal loan requirements, resulted from the audit and independent research.

The Daily Journal has also filed Freedom of Information Act requests for applications for both federal loans approved for the rural water association.

A copy of the full North Lee audit can be seen on djournal.com.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com