Alabama county could be out $400, or millions
- Article by: JAY REEVES
- Associated Press
- December 8, 2013 - 9:30 AM
GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — The criminal charge against former Marshall County Revenue Commissioner Joey Masters is serious, but hardly jaw-dropping: He's accused on a single misdemeanor count of taking a few hundred dollars from a petty cash fund in his office.
But a separate civil lawsuit contends the allegations are but a pin prick in a massive scandal that cost the north Alabama county of 95,000 people nearly as much as its entire annual budget of nearly $23 million.
A taxpayer lawsuit working its way through the courts says Masters purposely decreased the values of hundreds of pieces of property to reduce the tax bills of friends, political allies, relatives and influential citizens while serving as revenue commissioner. The lawsuit says the scam cost the county $12 million to $20 million over three years.
Masters resigned last month when the misdemeanor criminal charge was filed. Defense attorney Dan Warnes said the charge, which is still pending, involved a few hundred dollars that Masters used mistakenly from an office fund to pay personal expenses.
"Everything was paid back before the charges were even filed," Warnes said.
But Warnes said the broader allegations of a multimillion fraud are all wrong, and the county commission chairman, James Hutcheson, agreed. Hutcheson called the claims "very far-fetched."
"The county couldn't survive if those numbers were real," he said.
The lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Randy Beard, stands by the accusations and questions why more serious criminal charges haven't been filed by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, whose office is prosecuting Masters on the misdemeanor.
"The elephant in the room is just completely ignored," said Beard, representing taxpayer Kenneth Downs. Both Strange and Masters are Republicans, and Beard said he suspects Strange is going easy on Masters at least partly because of politics.
The attorney general's office can't discuss the case because it is pending in court, said spokeswoman Joy Patterson.
Located along the Tennessee River in northeastern Alabama, Marshall County is a hilly mixture of waterfront retreats and small towns where poultry factories, car lots and small shops provide many of the jobs. The county is best known for Lake Guntersville, a prime target for bass anglers.
Masters, 51, of Albertville served as Marshall County's tax assessor during much of the 1990s, and he was first elected revenue commissioner in 2002 after citizens voted to create the position by combining the posts of tax assessor and tax collector. Last elected to a six-year term in 2008, his term would have expired next year.
Masters, like many officeholders in Alabama, was a former Democrat before joining the GOP.
In November 2012, a 100-page audit by the state Department of Examiners of Public Accounts raised troubling questions about how the revenue office was operating under Masters.
Masters allowed property values to be reduced improperly, the report said, and values were wrongly decreased on some property owned by Masters and relatives. The report found assessment errors totaling $17 million over three years ending in 2010, and it said the $14.2 million in supplemental assessments that were issued to fix the problem didn't make up all the difference.
The Alabama Revenue Department took control of the county office following the audit. But the audit didn't ask Masters to repay a cent in improper assessments, and he remained revenue commissioner. That changed last month, when Masters was indicted on the misdemeanor charge of using his office for personal gain and quit the post.
The attorney general's office won't say how much money is involved in the charge, which carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $6,000 fine. Nor will it say whether investigators looked into the allegations that the county was out millions of dollars.
But Hutcheson, the county commission chairman, said that based on his knowledge, the misdemeanor case centered only on $400 in petty cash. The case is set for a non-jury trial before a district court judge Dec. 17, records show. Masters will be able to receive his public pension even if convicted because the charge isn't a felony.
Masters likely won't be charged with any crimes involving the incorrect assessments outlined by state auditors, Hutcheson said.
"The attorney general's office investigated all that stuff for a year and didn't come up with anything," he said.
Hutcheson said county government would be failing if millions really were missing — the annual budget is only about $23 million. Mistakes under Masters likely cost the county money, Hutcheson said, but the amount is undetermined and the county is healthy.
Meanwhile, Beard said he is getting ready to question Masters under oath for the civil suit about a series of property values that may have been reduced.
In one case, Beard said, Masters reduced the value of a piece of property from $230,000 to $2,300 to save a friend money on taxes. In another, Masters sold an associate the $650,000 home of a dead man in exchange for just $4,500 in unpaid taxes, Beard said.
"There were hundreds of these things," said Beard. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money.
Warnes said Masters was responsible for the mistakes of workers by virtue of his office, but he denied the former revenue commissioner purposely did anything wrong with assessments.
In one case, Warnes said, the attorney general's office allowed a homestead exemption granted to Master's mother, yet the civil suit fails to note that the state's highest law enforcement officer approved the decision.
"To me that's an indication of the accuracy of what else might be in there," he said.
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