Former Bradley commissioner challenges timing of audit committee meet on conflict of interest finding

Rawls says Davis re-election effort benefits from late meeting date as she calls suggestion 'not a fair assumption'

Staff file photo / Former Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls has raised questions about the timing of the commission's audit committee meeting this year.

A former member of the Bradley County Commission is questioning the timing of the governing body's audit committee meeting.

Dan Rawls said if the meeting is not held before the May 3 election, it will appear suspiciously protective of District 6 Commissioner Erica Davis, who is seeking re-election. A recent audit by the Tennessee Comptroller's Office said Davis violated the state's conflict of interest statute by indirectly benefiting from a county contract at Lake Forest Middle School.

The panel is expected to discuss the finding against Davis when it meets.

"What's very interesting is that the audit committee the last three years has met in January, February and the first of March last year," Rawls, who represented District 6 when he was on the commission but is not seeking elected office, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. Rawls believes the meeting is coming in May or later based on remarks in a prior commission meeting, he said, and that's after voters make their commission picks.

"This year, when they have a finding they have to deal with - and this commissioner is in a contentious race - this is the first time I can ever remember that it was scheduled this late," he said.

Rawls said the timing bothers him. He plans to ask commissioners about the matter directly when they meet Monday night.

No audit committee meeting had been set as of Friday, according to Bradley officials.

Meanwhile, Davis said Thursday in an email that Rawls's suggestion of impropriety is unfair.

"To say that if the meeting were being held after the election to benefit me is not a fair assumption, considering I am not aware that any official date has even been set for the committee to meet," she said.

Davis is a member of the committee.

"The [comptroller's] report has been available since its release to the public and the press since late December 2021," she said. "Only now, weeks before a critical election, is the narrative being twisted by political opponents to benefit themselves.

"I have done nothing wrong and been nothing but cooperative and transparent. There is nothing to hide and no conspiracy to protect," she said.

The finding on Davis in the December audit stems from the fact she owns TriStar Enterprises, which entered into a subcontract with Berywood Landscaping LLC, the low-bidder at $45,000, for work at the county's Lake Forest Middle School to remove three county-owned buildings. The bid for the work was approved in a May 18, 2020, commission vote that included Davis, according to the state comptroller's audit.

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"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," the audit states. "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.'"

Davis denies wrongdoing in the work and said she won't weigh in on any decisions related to the finding of conflict of interest when the audit committee reviews the audit. But she hopes the rules are made clearer.

"To date, Bradley County has never had a policy in place that clarifies and manages contracts on a sub-contractor level," Davis said. "Creating such a policy now will help to avoid this issue among current commissioners, as well as commissioners who may serve in the future.

"As I have stated previously, I will recuse myself from any decisions related to this matter during an audit committee or any other public meeting and vote," she said. "That is the most transparent and appropriate way for me to proceed in my involvement."

In a March 8 email about the finding, Davis said the commission's vote on May 18, 2020, was to authorize the county mayor to enter into an agreement with the selected contractor. 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."

(READ MORE: Report finds Hamilton County district attorney general violated Tennessee nepotism law)

Davis said Thursday the committee is required to meet by the end of the fiscal year in June and she additionally noted Rawls has been dinged by the state comptroller for an audit committee finding when he was on the commission and served as audit committee chair a few years ago.

"We are keenly aware of this deadline, considering the fact that in 2016 then audit committee chair Dan Rawls failed to hold an audit committee meeting, resulting in a county audit finding the following year," Davis said.

Rawls said it was a no-win situation, and the meeting was just a little late. He said in a follow-up email that part of the committee consists of private citizens, and that made getting everyone together for meeting difficult that year.

Rawls said in his recollection, audit committee members weren't meeting at all, but the commission the previous year passed a resolution to require the meeting, "so getting everyone together that year was a task."

He said the meeting ended up being "about a week late, so the finding was because the committee was a bit late in meeting, but it got done," he said.

Audit committee chair Louie Alford said Friday in a telephone interview no date has been set but there was a possibility the committee meeting could be set as soon as April. But he said he and other members of the committee and commission want a representative of the comptroller's office to be there. Alford said he spoke with the comptroller's office Thursday and is trying to work out a date with state officials.

"But we don't have a definite date that they can come in either," he said.

Alford said he wanted the state to be available to discuss the finding on Davis and other findings in the audit.

"And there are several other questions we need to ask about in the audit and some other questions referencing our budgets, too," he said. "It's important that we have him [the auditor] here."

Alford said there has been no urgency about the meeting date.

There have also been some illnesses among commission and committee members, and "I haven't been in any big rush to have a meeting," Alford said. He said he hoped to hear from state officials in the next week or so, but there was no guarantee a meeting is going to be in the immediate future.

The audit committee's other members include Milan Blake and Kevin Raper, along with appointed members Alan Smith, Buster Stuart and Dewayne Thompson.

"I feel the committee should schedule meetings based on needs," commission and committee member Kevin Raper said by email.

Raper said he'll support committee chair Alford's decision on when to schedule the meeting "100%."

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County commission chair Johnny Mull - who is not a member of the audit committee - said Thursday in a telephone interview there had been no consistent timing of previous audit committee meetings.

Mull said it's the mayor's duty to set up the committee and name a chair, but "typically I don't micromanage them or the chair of that committee about when they have their meetings."

"In this season of elections, if we have it next week, we have it in June or whenever it is, the other [political] side is going to think it's politically motivated," he said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.