An audit by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office says Bradley County District 6 Commissioner Erica Davis violated the state's conflict of interest statute by indirectly benefiting from a county contract at Lake Forest Middle School.
Davis owns TriStar Enterprises, which entered into a subcontract with Berywood Landscaping LLC, the low-bidder at $45,000, for work at Lake Forest to remove three county-owned buildings. The bid was approved in a May 18, 2020, commission vote that included Davis, according to the state comptroller's audit released in December.
"TriStar is a trucking company owned and operated by Erica Davis, who is a member of the Bradley County Commission, and who voted to award the bid to Berywood," the audit states. "Ms. Davis stated that her company performed work on the Lake Forest Middle School property, and she provided auditors with three separate invoices sent to Berywood from TriStar totaling $23,422.50 for hauling services.
"These payments appear to violate the state conflict of interest statute. This statute states that 'it is unlawful for any officer, committee member, director or other person whose duty it is to vote for, let out, overlook or in any manner to superintend any work or any contract in which any ... county ... shall or may be interested, to be indirectly interested in any such contract unless the officer publicly acknowledges such officer's interest.'"
The audit states the noncompliance with state law "is the result of a lack of management oversight."
In an email Tuesday, Davis denied any wrongdoing.
"The vote on May 18, 2020, was to authorize the mayor to enter into an agreement with the contractor he selected after the county's standard bidding process was followed," Davis said.
Following that vote, "I was asked by [Berywood] Landscaping to provide a quote for hauling debris from the demolition site at Lake Forest Middle School. My company provided them with a fair market quote for our services," she said. "We were later informed by [Berywood] they wanted to secure my company's service. There was no contract with [Berywood]. We gave a quote, were asked to do the work at the quoted rate and completed the job satisfactorily. The work was properly documented, invoiced and subsequently paid in full by [Berywood] Landscaping."
Davis said her fellow county commissioners were aware of her full-time job as owner of TriStar and they all understood the kind of work her company performs. She said she "did not specifically disclose my involvement as a subcontractor on this project because our current policy only requires disclosure to be made at the time of a vote."
"There was not a conflict at the time I voted on May 18, and therefore, would not have been able to offer a disclosure statement," she said. "While there were no other votes taken on the matter, it was discussed on other occasions in public meetings that my company had participated in debris removal on this project."
Davis said she followed policy as she understood it, and when the matter was brought up in the audit, "I cooperated fully with their questioning and provided everything they requested to complete their assessment."
Davis said the county commission's Audit Committee will take up a discussion on the audit at a later time.
"When they do, I expect there will be a discussion on how to best resolve this particular incident," she said. "I cannot speak for the whole committee, but I will be supportive of whatever outcome and resolution would help avoid even the appearance of impropriety for myself or any other commissioner in the future."
Davis said there is no county policy or policy noted by the county's technical advisers that prohibits "the performance of the work which was done by a wonderful company and its employees."
However, auditors said county officials should review the payments and "resolve the conflict of interest."
The state attorney general's opinion "on several occasions regarding conflict of interest statutes [states] that persons who vote on budgets and appropriations 'superintend' the contracts paid for by those budgets and appropriations. Therefore, we believe this is an indirect conflict of interest as defined by the governing statute," the audit states.
The other 13 county commissioners were contacted Tuesday for comment, but none responded.
Rodney West, a resident of the McDonald community on the west side of Bradley County, asked commissioners Monday night about allegations Davis had violated the law, he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
"I went up and made my presentation and went over it, and that was the first time the controversy was even talked about in the commission," West said of his take on the panel's reaction. "I asked the commission, 'Is this was the first time it's been talked about?' The vice chairman [District 2 Commissioner Thomas Crye] then stepped forward and answered the question, 'Well it's been known publicly.'"
West is miffed mostly over the lack of public notice about the business relationship between the District 6 commissioner and the contractor, the appearance that commissioners already knew of it and that Davis didn't try to clear the air.
"Ms. Davis should have come back to the commission and said her company was interested in doing this work," he said.
West said he'd seen the results of the work at the school and said, "They did a great job," and remarked, "She has a very good company."
He said he'll be interested to see how the Audit Committee and commission treats the matter in the future.
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said Tuesday in a telephone interview that once the contract was put out for bid and awarded, the county mayor's office had nothing to do with the project or how the contractor dealt with subcontracting for work at the school project.
"I only dealt with the man at Berywood Landscaping, so once it was done, then I paid him, and it was basically the end of the story from the county's perspective," said Davis, who is not related to the District 6 county commissioner.
Mayor Davis said he doesn't express opinions on how the commission or its commissioners conduct their businesses. Davis, who noted there were no auditor's findings related to his office and the school contract, said he became aware of the trucking company late in the project when he visited the site and noticed some TriStar trucks there.
"I did notice it, but again, I wasn't doing business with them, and I didn't know what the situation was," he said.