By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Sonny Noble defined himself for nearly six years through employment at the North Lee County Water Association, once working almost continuously for three days straight, even enjoying 3 a.m. calls related to leaks, dirty water and malfunctioning wells.
Logging in 50 hours weekly, even 60 and 80, didn’t faze Noble. He says he loved working at the rural water association serving about 4,400 customers.
Noble, 32, says he enjoyed helping providing a basic utility to people in thinly populated locations in Lee County. Hired as a basic laborer, he received promotions to crew leader, maintenance supervisor and a stint as interim head of the entire water association.
Now, three months and some change after getting fired from the water association, Noble still believes he was terminated for reporting illegal activities. His current situation shows no evidence of reward or praise for reporting crimes and upending company leadership steeped in shady activity.
Unemployment forced Noble to move from his home and live with family and also caused alienation from the water utility work he loved and still uses fond words to describe.
“I knew I wouldn’t find anything else I enjoyed that much,” Noble, a 2000 Mooreville High School graduate, said last week. “That was where I planned to be for a career.”
Noble knows some people have a hard time understanding his thought process, including how he could welcome the 2 and 3 a.m. phone calls requiring him to repair leaks and deal with other water issues. He enjoyed his work, despite constant complaints of mineral sediment creating rust-colored water, staining clothes and occasionally running from facets with an undesirable smell. He didn’t have control to fix those issues, which still plague North Lee customers.
Noble went to water association leaders in the summer of 2011 after visiting with a customer with blisters on his body from over-chlorination of the Lake Piomingo water system. Noble said his nose even burned just smelling the customer’s water up close.
“I felt obligated to say something,” he said recently during one of multiple extended interviews with the Daily Journal.
Noble’s discussions with others at North Lee, including General Manager Dan Durham, changed nothing. Employed at North Lee for more than three years, Noble decided seek help outside of the water association. His bold decision to call the Daily Journal in September 2011 to report illegal, unethical and corrupt activity will help define him for the rest of his life.
The hourly employee and whistle-blower expected to lose his job.
That phone call and later conversations left North Lee’s reputation with a stain darker than the water. The entire nine-member board of directors resigned, while falsifying water reports led to Durham’s federal indictment and later conviction.
The FBI and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigated the private, nonprofit, customer-owned company.
People spoke with disbelief of whistle-blower Noble’s courage to risk his employment to report crimes and misdeeds at the water association.
While some praised his efforts and even temporarily appointed him as interim head of North Lee, what followed hardly felt like a warm and fuzzy reward for eliminating systemic malfeasance.
Anonymous callers threatened physical harm. Others said he would die for his betrayal.
“They’d say, ‘If I see you out, I’m going to beat the hell out of you,’” Noble said. “It didn’t really faze me.”
A co-worker even notified Noble of discussions to plot his murder.
However, promised beatings and imminent death never materialized. Noble kept his life and his job.
Friends, acquaintances and strangers know of Noble’s role in North Lee shenanigans. Some call the divorced father of three a troublemaker and a disgruntled employee. Others call him honorable and a model for professional integrity.
Whistle-blowing often leads to polarizing views about the individual who discloses secret information.
Noble believes in doing the right thing more than what others think of him. He said he places a high priority on living a moral life and making things right when he falls short. He’ll return extra change to a cashier who makes a mistake. However, he also feels compelled to speak out when others commit moral or ethical lapses, even embellishments.
A number of people close to Noble have suffered from drug and alcohol addiction.
“I just can’t watch wrongdoing and let people just throw their lives away,” he said.
Far fewer people know of Noble’s traumatic childhood, although he will discuss it freely.
Noble’s parents separated while his mom, Pamela Pearson, was pregnant and they divorced soon after his birth. The years following shaped his life in ways he acknowledges he may never understand.
Pearson struggled to find resources necessary to support a lifestyle many people take for granted. She lived in her car periodically when her stepfather kicked her out of his house. Noble and his siblings mostly stayed with their grandparents during this time.
People described Pearson as a gentle woman who lived a hard life. Or at least that’s what the reporter wrote in Nov. 16, 1989, for a front-page story about her violent murder at age 32.
A man with a history of mental illness and violence against Pearson approached her car as she and two others waited on a Crosstown train to pass. He pulled out a shotgun and murdered each of them and remains incarcerated in the state penitentiary at Parchman, serving three life sentences.
Noble never learned much more about his mom’s murder than what he read in the paper. He said he has viewed the mugshot of the killer on the Mississippi Department of Corrections website.
The son recalls some memories together with his mom but often has to ask family about details.
“Here and there, I can remember things like going to the movies, going to the laundromat,” Noble said.
Psychiatrists often describe traumatic childhoods such as Noble and his siblings as possible catalysts for behavior later in life. Some people turn to alcohol. Noble’s brother serves prison time now in Wisconsin for his eighth DUI. Noble believes his childhood could be responsible for his hyper-sense of ethics and morals.
“It’s amazed me how all three of us were raised in the same lifestyle but I think nothing like them,” he said.
After investigations ended, employees received back pay for uncompensated work from 2008 to 2011. Noble’s check was upwards of $3,000. He also earned a promotion to outside maintenance supervisor and resumed his job routine, at least for a while.
Noble kept meticulous notes and documents beginning in 2012 when he began to suspect problems again at work. This situation involved finances for the water association, which began pursuing an $8.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan.
“I heard board members say it was going to put them in bankruptcy and for not being able to pay for it,” Noble said. “It would hurt people.”
Financial issues and instances he questioned from current North Lee manager Jim Banker convinced Noble to take action again. He contacted the Daily Journal in February to begin providing information, some of which led to an April 11 article detailing widespread financial mismanagement, lack of oversight, more than $14,000 not accounted for, along with broken laws and noncompliance with an existing federal loan.
Noble was fired the day the story published. North Lee board members won’t discuss the personnel matter, but Noble said the reason provided was missing too much work. His personnel file provided to the Daily Journal showed no written documentation related to missed work.
Noble filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination shortly after losing his job. A court date hasn’t been set.
However, Mississippi’s employment laws provide very narrow protections for fired employees.
Court documents filed on behalf of the water association admit no wrongdoing.
As for now, Noble spends time with his kids and keeps looking for a new job. He acknowledges his whistle-blowing at North Lee could impact whether employers decide to hire him.
Noble waits for the next chapter in his life to begin.
Even after losing his job and home, Noble still thinks he did the right thing.
“I couldn’t just sit there and watch,” he said. “No matter what the repercussions were.”