No evidence exists that a Greene County Highway Department employee derived a benefit from allowing the department to remove fill dirt from his personal property for use to repair a road damaged by flooding in 2019, according to a state investigation.
Results from the investigation were released last week by the Tennessee Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury into the incident which occurred in August 2019.
While the investigation found that there was no personal benefit to the employee and the action saved the county money, the report notes that the incident created the potential for a public perception of private gain or favor and risk of abuse and recommends such action should be taken with the consultation of the county attorney and county legislative body.
The incident occurred as Highway Department crews were repairing roads damaged by the flooding in February 2019.
Fill dirt was needed to rebuild and repair Wattenbarger Gap Road, according to Road Superintendent Kevin Swatsell.
Although the department had to wait for a time after the flooding to begin repairs due to continued landslides, the repairs were an emergency situation as a resident of the road was in poor health and the alternative route for emergency medical personnel took an hour, Swatsell explained.
The road superintendent found a local landowner willing to sell fill dirt to repair the road for $40 a truckload, according to the investigation findings.
However, a department employee offered to donate fill dirt from his property at no cost to the county, and Swatsell authorized the use of department personnel and equipment to remove fill dirt from the employee’s property for use in repairing the damaged road, according to the investigation report. There were 106 truckloads removed, and Swatsell indicated that the department neither fixed nor improved the employee’s property when it obtained the fill dirt.
Fill dirt from this property was also removed for department projects under the two previous road superintendents, Swatsell said.
In looking at satellite images from prior to the incident and after as well as physical inspection of the property, investigators determined that the property was not significantly improved by the removal of the fill dirt.
The property owner did make some improvements to its appearance with his own funds afterwards, but the county made no alterations to the property other than removing the dirt, Swatsell said.
“In this case, there is nothing to suggest that the road superintendent or any other department employee derived any personal benefit from the arrangement; to the contrary, the evidence suggests that the county benefitted by saving at least $4,240 it would otherwise have had to pay for fill dirt,” the report indicated.
However, situations such as this one can create an appearance of impropriety, the state findings indicated, and precautions should be taken whenever county equipment is used on private property, particularly if it is owned by a county official or employee, and consultation should take place with the county attorney and the county commission prior to undertaking such arrangements.