State crime unit to probe Ridgeway billings

State crime unit to probe Ridgeway billings

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

State Auditor Steve Patterson Tuesday asked the state attorney general’s White Collar Crime Division to investigate Tupelo’s Ridgeway subdivision cost overruns for possible criminal activity.

The attorney general’s office quickly agreed, Patterson said.

The criminal probe will focus on billings to the city for more than $721,000 in materials that were apparently never delivered.

A state audit investigation begun in early April showed the city paid for 1,651 cubic yards of concrete at the site, but only a little over 100 yards were actually in place, Patterson said an engineering study showed.

“The city of Tupelo has paid for approximately 1,443 more cubic yards of concrete at $500 per cubic yard than it actually received,” the auditor said. “Therefore, the citizens of the city of Tupelo appear to have a net loss of $721,500.”

Patterson said his office’s probe also showed that “individuals who had knowledge of the various aspects of the operation acknowledge that invoices were approved for materials which were not received.”

“What I’m doing is backing out (of the probe) and letting his (the attorney general’s) folks determine whether there are any criminal charges to be made,” Patterson said. “I’m reserving the right to make a demand for the return of any money civilly.”

Mayor Jack Marshall confirmed Tuesday that the city’s internal audit revealed the same basic findings, although he said the independent engineer said up to 300 cubic yards of the concrete might have been placed at the subdivision.

The mayor said he also welcomed the attorney general’s probe, although he had not been informed of the development.

State auditors left the city “about two weeks ago” but told city officials nothing about their intentions, he said.

Tupelo City Council was mulling the Ridgeway issue in executive session late Tuesday night.

The mayor said the contractor involved has declined to come in and go over “the invoices one by one” to determine what happened.

“The unfortunate part about it is we can’t get him to do that because right now everybody is poised to sue each other,” Marshall said.

The mayor said former Public Service Director Randy McMickin had initialed the paperwork indicating delivery of the phantom concrete. Marshall fired McMickin last month, citing “inefficient management” of the Ridgeway project. McMickin has repeatedly declined comment on the case, although in a prepared statement released by his attorney last month McMickin suggested he was being made a “political scapegoat.”

But the city’s internal investigation found no involvement by any other city employees, Marshall said. The mayor did say that Chief Operations Officer Joe Benefield has retained an attorney in connection with the case, but said Benefield was not suspected of wrongdoing.

“Rumors and insinuations … on the street” linked Benefield to the Ridgeway overruns despite the findings of the investigation, Marshall said. “I don’t blame him,” he said of hiring counsel.

In fact, it was Benefield who initially discovered the problems in the Ridgeway billing, Marshall said. “It was Joe that caught all this…,” he said.

Ridgeway project plans called for drainage improvements, installation of curbs and gutters, and repaving streets. Work was halted in late March when the cost overruns were discovered. Attempts to restart the job were stalled last week in a dispute between the city and the original project engineer, whose contract required a 30-day termination notice.

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