A youth athletic association says it hired a man with a criminal record to build bathrooms at Woodmore Elementary’s football field and paid for the work in part with taxpayer money from a county commissioner’s discretionary fund.
The head of the Woodmore Hall Youth Football Association said the group did not know about Wallace Fortson’s record when it hired him.
Fortson, who is suing the association for $4,800 for firing him, declined to comment.
County Commissioner Greg Beck gave $7,000 out of his taxpayer-funded discretionary money for the project in March 2010, according to the county finance office.
Beck said he was “appalled” to hear about the contractor’s background.
“In this day and time, you can’t trust people,” he said. “You have to do a background check, and I’m sure that board of directors [of the association] will take a long look at the way they do business in the future.”
County officials say that there is little oversight of money commissioners hand out from their discretionary funds.
The association also received $10,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.
Community Foundation President Pete Cooper said the foundation can’t keep an eye on the particulars of every project it funds.
Seeking a deal
Arthur Watley, CEO of the Woodmore Hall Youth Football Association, said the foundation bought the materials and members wanted to do the work themselves but Fortson offered to do it for less money.
“I’ve known him for a number of years,” Watley said. “I had a mortgage company. I did loans for him.”
Watley alleges that Fortson did not finish the job and that he returned materials to Home Depot for store credit, which he kept.
Watley said he did not file a criminal complaint.
“We were going to let this guy go ahead and go on and take our losses and leave,” Watley said.
He said he did not know that Fortson had a lengthy criminal record.
According to court files, Fortson has pleaded guilty to multiple charges including passing worthless checks, minor theft and grand larceny. Charges of facilitating the sale of marijuana, powder and crack cocaine were dismissed, according to court files.
Fortson referred all questions to his attorney, Phil Durrence, who said Thursday he was not aware of his client’s record.
Watley said the organization paid Fortson $3,100 of the $4,000 he was owed. In his Hamilton County Circuit Court lawsuit, Fortson claims he is owed $2,300 and he seeks $2,500 for breach of agreement.
Hamilton County Schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said the school system owns the football field and likely looked over the association’s plans for the bathrooms.
But she said it is not the system’s responsibility to conduct background checks on a contractor the association hired.
“It’s not our issue to look into,” she said. “It’s the community’s issue. All we do is ensure the plans are in compliance with state law.”
Commission Chairman Larry Henry said what happened to Beck could happen to any commissioner.
Henry said the commission should adopt rules to ensure contractors who receive taxpayer money from the discretionary funds are vetted thoroughly before they receive work.
County Auditor Bill McGriff said the county reserves the right to investigate any organization that receives taxpayer money. But he and Finance Administrator Louis Wright said the only oversight on these expenditures is done on the front end to make sure the organizations receiving the money are legitimate.
McGriff said if an organization using taxpayer money makes a bad decision about hiring, that doesn’t necessarily mean the money was misspent.
“It’s a bad decision on the part of the organization that’s doing a good thing,” he said.
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...