Monroe County has hired a consultant to review its fire department before hiring a new chief after a 3-year investigation concluded that past leadership was negligent but didn’t warrant criminal prosecution.
County manager Jim Hedges told the Reporter on Wednesday that Brian L. Meadows of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA)/Homeland Security, will evaluate and establish priorities for the department with “full authority over MCES including staffing and budgetary matters.” Meadows, a paramedic instructor and an EMT instructor/examiner, worked for the Ashburn Fire Department for nearly 30 years, including a stint as fire chief.
Hedges, who lives in Ashburn, said Meadows’ assessment is expected to take about six months. Jason Lott will continue to serve as the interim chief in the meantime.
Ten days earlier, on Dec. 30, 2019, Monroe County district attorney Jonathan Adams closed the book on an old case by confirming that former Monroe County fire chief Donny Mercer and ex Monroe County battalion chief John Johnson will not face prosecution for alleged wrongdoing in a nearly 3-year-long probe into the handling of volunteer firefighter training documents.
Adams sent a letter to Special Agent Niki Simmons of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) dated Dec. 30, stating he wouldn’t charge Mercer or Johnson with a crime. The top two leaders each resigned under pressure on June 14, 2017.
Adams’ letter states: “I believe this case does not rise to the level of actionable criminal prosecution.”
Adams continued, “The case summary indicates Chief Mercer and Battalion Chief Johnson were negligent in submitting required documentation to the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council as well as to the Georgia Firefighter Pension Fund. There is also evidence of forged signatures on training documents submitted by both Chief Mercer and Battalion Chief Johnson. However, the act of forgery or knowledge of the forgery cannot be narrowed to Chief Mercer and Battalion Chief Johnson.”
Adams added, “This case appears to be an example of administrative negligence which was resolved by the termination of the parties rather than a need for prosecution.”
Mercer told the Reporter on Tuesday that he’s glad the matter is resolved but said he was never worried about it to begin with, reiterating that he’s done nothing wrong. Mercer said he feels he was “targeted” by former county manager Anita Buice and ex fire chief Matt Perry, who took over the department after Mercer’s June 2017 ouster. Mercer was one of 10 candidates to apply for the fire chief vacancy after Perry left late last year. Now that Hedges has hired Meadows as a consultant instead of a chief, Mercer said he intends to run for District 2 Monroe County commissioner this year against incumbent Eddie Rowland.
As for the findings in the investigation, the GBI’s Simmons interviewed numerous parties, including Mercer and Johnson, in 2018 after Monroe County Inv. Marc Mansfield turned the case over to the GBI. Mansfield told Simmons the issue came to light when up to 17 Monroe County volunteer firefighters got notifications from the Georgia Firefighter Pension Fund saying they would not receive pensions for the previous three years spanning 2015-17 because they were no longer certified firefighters.
In a March 2018 interview, Britt Brinson, Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council (GFSTC) Members Compliance and Evaluation manager, told Simmons that then-chief Mercer was late turning in paperwork necessary for Fire Standards Training certification in late 2015. Brinson said Mercer was given an extension until July 26, 2016 when the chief still had not completed all of the paperwork. Brinson said Mercer submitted on that date a signed document stating that all volunteer firefighters’ training had been completed. Brinson said Mercer signed the initial application and initiation paperwork while Johnson signed the training paperwork.
David Luther, Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund Director of Member Services, told Simmons in March 2018 that it is not necessary to be state certified to be a member of the Georgia Firefighter Pension Fund. However, Luther said it is required to fill out the application paperwork through GFSTC to apply for the Georgia Firefighter Pension Fund. Luther said the requirement to be a part of the Georgia Firefighter Pension Fund is based on the number of calls attended by the firefighter as well as the number of hours of training attended by the firefighter. Luther added that each fire station is required to provide at least eight hours of training on a monthly basis.
Luther told Simmons he visited the Monroe County Fire Department office on July 22, 2016 after he discovered the number of training hours on documents submitted days earlier did not appear to be correct. Luther said there was no other documentation to support the number of training hours submitted on the forms and added that signatures on the forms may not have matched the signatures of the firefighters in question.
In May 2018, Monroe County volunteer firefighter Eric Tulley told Simmons that he received a pack of paperwork from Mercer in February 2018. Tulley said he hadn’t asked for the paperwork nor was he aware Mercer was going to send him anything. Tulley said among the documents he received was a form with signatures of volunteer firefighters from 2015. Tulley said neither he nor three other volunteer firefighters whose names were on the paperwork had ever signed the documents nor had they ever seen the papers before.
Tulley said also in the paperwork sent by Mercer were volunteer service affidavits provided to the Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund. Tulley told Simmons there was a form dated 2015 containing his signature that stated his total department station activity hours as being 134 hours and the total department station pension eligible calls as being five calls. However, Tulley said Mercer had provided the Firefighters Pension Fund with a separate document saying Tulley had 248 total department station activity hours and 10 total department station pension eligible calls. Tulley said the second document wasn’t signed nor was it even possible for a volunteer firefighter to obtain 248 hours in a single year. Tulley told Simmons he believes the numbers were altered in order to improve the county’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating.
Two months earlier, in March 2018, then-Monroe County manager Buice told Simmons that Mercer was not required to provide the county with any documentation on training or certification. However, she said she had been notified that state certification was being questioned and that paperwork had not been provided and was not being properly maintained. Buice said she later worked with Mercer and Johnson to try to resolve the issues. Buice and county attorney Ben Vaughn then turned over to the GBI some documents in which volunteer firefighters claimed their signatures had been forged.
In May 2018, Monroe County volunteer firefighter Matt Millwood told Simmons that he was unsure how many volunteer hours he had in a year but said 248 was “probably wrong.” Simmons then showed Millwood a 2016 Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund form showing he had obtained 120 activity hours and six pension-eligible calls. The form, dated Feb. 8, 2017, was signed “Matt Millwood”. However, Millwood pointed out that his name was printed at the top of the form as “Corey M. Millwood.” Millwood said his first name, which is actually Cory, was misspelled, and he added that he signs all official fire department documents as “Cory M. Millwood”, not “Matt Millwood.” Millwood told Simmons that the signature on the form was not his.
Two months later, in July 2018, Simmons interviewed Mercer, who told her he had worked for two years upon being appointed fire chief in 2014 to clear the roster of volunteer firefighters who were no longer active. Mercer said the Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund paperwork he initially submitted in 2015 was incorrect, and the department was forced to pay a penalty because of it. Mercer said the error was because he thought the total department station activity hours he was supposed to submit was the total number offered rather than the number firefighters actually attended. He said he later submitted new paperwork but was told no signatures were required on the updated version.
Simmons then showed Mercer the form on which Millwood claimed his signature had been forged. Mercer denied signing Millwood’s name and said he didn’t know who had signed it. Mercer said he first signs each affidavit and then provides the paperwork for firefighters to sign.
Mercer told Simmons that some of the training documents were stored by Buice at the county office while others were stored in a broken-down car in Johnson’s yard and still others were stored at the fire station offices in crates he bought at Walmart.
In March 2018, then-Monroe County fire chief Perry, who took over for Mercer in August 2017 before resigning in November 2019, told Simmons that two volunteer firefighters had notified him of signatures on training records that were not theirs. Perry said GFSTC audited the Monroe County Fire Department in December 2017 and discovered there were volunteer training records missing. Perry said before Johnson resigned in June 2017, Perry went into Johnson’s office and saw a stack of documents with signatures, including Perry’s. Perry said he asked Johnson what they were since he knew he had not actually signed anything. Although Simmons’ report doesn’t state whether Johnson answered Perry, Perry said he told Johnson at the time that his actions were wrong. Perry said he later learned that Johnson had provided Buice with the same documents he had seen on Johnson’s desk. He said some firefighters had signed new documents because they had been told the original records were lost while others refused to sign anything.
Perry told Simmons that while chief in February 2018, his signature was required for department training records, but he said he refused to sign them because he could not prove firefighters actually attended the training. Perry said he found a document on the department’s computer that was created in 2016 with volunteer firefighter attendance listed for 2015. Perry told Simmons he questioned the document’s legitimacy.
In July 2018, Johnson told Simmons that while battalion chief he had problems gathering training documents from volunteer firefighters. Johnson said he was not notified until early 2017 that there was an issue with GFSTC documents. Johnson said he alerted all affected firefighters and said he scheduled a meeting with Brinson for June 14, 2017 to address the matter. Johnson said “a female” then notified Buice about the issue, who summoned Mercer and Johnson to her office for a meeting prior to his scheduled meeting with Brinson. Buice told Johnson she had cancelled the meeting with Brinson at which point Johnson resigned. Johnson told Simmons he felt as if Buice did not want for him and Mercer to resolve the issue because she wanted a reason to get rid of them.
Johnson told Simmons that he stored departmental documents in several areas, including a gun case at his home, his broken-down Nissan XTerra at his home and at headquarters in a filing drawer and a closet. However, Johnson denied having anything to do with the Georgia Firefighters Pension Fund documents.
Johnson then told Simmons that he created a document with real names and initials to demonstrate a daily sign-in sheet. He said he showed firefighters the sign-in sheet as an example of the proper way to sign in. He said the document he created had “Example” written at the top of it, but he said the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office later showed him the same document while asking if he had forged the signatures. However, he said when he was shown the document by investigators, the word “Example” had been removed.