Marion County road superintendent used county equipment, property to sell dirt to private buyers, says comptroller

Staff Photo / Former Marion County Road Superintendent Jim Hawk discusses residents' concerns at a County Commission meeting in 2019.

The Tennessee Comptroller's Office said in a report that Marion County's former road superintendent used a county employee and county equipment to haul loads of county-owned dirt for personal benefit and to be sold to private buyers for $50 to $75 per load, among other findings.

James H. "Jim" Hawk, who was re-elected to the post in 2020, was leading the department during the audit period from July 1, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2022, according to Marion County Election Commission officials and the comptroller's investigative report. The report does not name any of the parties discussed in the comptroller's investigation.

A landline phone number listed for Hawk's home in Whitwell, Tennessee, was not working Tuesday.

Hawk retired in November 2022, according to the report, and an interim supervisor, Andy Morrison, was appointed until a successor, Cory Pickett, was elected by the Marion County Commission in February 2023. Hawk, a Republican, first won the post in 2016 while running against then-Road Superintendent Neil Webb, a Democrat, who died before the election took place but remained on the ballot.

Hawk's salary as head of the department was $95,035 a year.

According to the comptroller's investigative report, Hawk authorized an employee to use department equipment to load the employee's personal dump truck with county-owned dirt. Investigators were told the dirt was from Ellis Cove Road and other projects and taken to the department to be stored, according to the report. Hawk contended the dirt was free for the public to acquire, auditors said in the report. However, the department was not able to provide documentation of any public advertisement announcing the dirt was free for the public to take.

(READ MORE: Marion road superintendent addresses complaints)

State officials said both Hawk and the employee admitted the employee used department equipment to load the dirt for the employee's personal benefit. The employee told state officials Hawk gave him the dirt, and that he hauled the dirt on weekends, when the department was closed, according to the report.

The employee estimated he hauled 50 loads of dirt during the year and sold the dirt to individuals for amounts between $50 and $75 per load, the report states. The employee admitted to selling about five to six loads of dirt to a co-worker, and Hawk said the employee delivered one load of the dirt to his residence. The employee stated he did not report the proceeds from the sale of the dirt as taxable income, nor was the money from the sale of the dirt turned over to the county as revenue, according to the report.

Hawk also authorized a construction company's employee to use department equipment to load dirt stored on department property, according to the report. Hawk said the department sold a pile of dirt to someone at an auction, but the next day, the person decided he did not want the dirt, and the individual sold the dirt to a construction company, the report states.

"The former supervisor stated whenever the construction company needed the dirt, a construction company employee would come to the department with the company's truck, and the employee would load the dirt using the department's equipment," the report states. "The use of department equipment by the private company's employee created potential civil liabilities to the county."

(READ MORE: Auditors: Grundy highway department did work not allowed by state law on private property, cemeteries)

According to another finding in the report, Hawk also authorized a local repair shop to alter the diesel exhaust system on at least two department dump trucks.

"Repair shop personnel told state officials no such permanent alterations were performed; however, the repair shop's employee was on-site at the department garage the morning after an interview with the highway supervisor to reverse the alteration," the report states. "Investigators were told the repair shop achieved the alterations through software manipulation; however, repair shop personnel did not admit to the alterations."

Under federal law, to legally have the system removed would require recertification by the manufacturer and a new emission label and certification issued, according to the report.

State officials said Hawk authorized work on a portion of a road that was not on the approved county road list. The Marion County Commission's approved road list authorized seven-tenths of a mile of Kelly Creek Road to be considered a public road for the department to maintain, while the total length of Kelly Creek Road in Marion County is almost 2 miles.

"Several markers appear to have been placed on the road to indicate where the department is to stop working; however, investigators observed department equipment mowing the entire 1.9 miles of Kelly Creek Road and freshly patched potholes along the entire length of the road," the report states.

State officials also found Hawk hired his son Sept. 10, 2019, as a truck driver for the department and promoted him to foreman after he worked approximately three years as a truck driver. The former highway supervisor's son worked as foreman until he resigned Jan. 31, 2023, in violation of the county's nepotism policies.

(READ MORE: Polk County receives state-high of 14 findings in audit by Tennessee Comptroller)

Courtney C. Lynch, Marion County's district attorney general, said the report didn't indicate a violation of criminal laws.

"I thoroughly reviewed the report and met with the comptroller's office investigators about this matter. While there are internal policy violations, there is no viable prosecution for violation of state law at this time," Lynch said Tuesday in an email.

Marion County Mayor David Jackson called Hawks's actions bad judgment.

"It's just some things we wish hadn't happened, some bad judgment calls that were made, and we'll just have to continue on down the road from here," Jackson said Tuesday by phone.

The current road superintendent, Pickett, said Tuesday in a phone interview he could not comment now but would release a statement in a few days.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Staff File Photo / Charles Tucker, of Jasper, loads a truck at the Marion County Highway Department with a mixture of gravel and sand during snowy weather in 2002.