ARAGON, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Residents of one small Northwest Georgia town wonder whether the source of their constant financial struggles could be sitting in a cardboard box sealed with evidence tape.
That white and blue banker's box contains financial records connected to the city of Aragon's longtime clerk, Lori Dunn. She resigned two years ago after admitting she made some big mistakes.
"It was really bad," remembered mayor pro tem Debora Pittman. "We had layoffs and everything."
Aragon was founded in 1899 when cotton was still king, its textile plant at one point employing as many as 1000 people. But the plant closed 50 years ago, leaving the Polk County community of 1200 to try to grow with a few retail shops, some scenic parks and a mystery whose importance seems to get bigger every time citizens stop and wonder about their city's money troubles.
Ken Suffridge said when he took over as mayor in 2011 he reviewed financial records that made no sense. He said Aragon owed $350,000 in state and federal withholding taxes, another $28-thousand in ticket fines that had never been forwarded to the state. And who did he blame for all of this? Lori Dunn, the daughter of the man who would later become the current mayor.
"She was one person doing three people's jobs." explained her father, Mayor Gary Baldwin.
When Suffridge was mayor he wrote up Dunn repeatedly, accusing her of "shoddy work habits" that ultimately ruined the city's credit rating. In letters to Suffridge and council members, Dunn admitted forgetting to deposit checks written to the city, misplacing cash and even failing to log a $15 cash payment for a seat belt violation that resulted in the driver getting a suspended license and being jailed in another county.
"Anyone who knows me knows the pain I felt when I was the cause that someone was sent to jail unjustly," Dunn wrote in 2012.
Dunn blamed her mistakes on a heavy workload and "slight memory loss." She resigned in 2017, writing that she was "admitting no wrongdoing."
By then her father had become mayor.
But like so many in Aragon, mayor pro tem Pittman wondered whether any crimes had been committed. Since the mayor recused himself from anything related to his daughter, Pittman was the one who headed up the investigation. The city's outside CPA reviewed a box of financial documents collected by council members and issued a report.
Even though the examination was limited, the accountant still discovered thousands of dollars in questionable cash advances, even more checks that should have been deposited, and personal checks Lori Dunn had written to the city that bounced. The CPA found "an elevated fraud risk."
We asked her father how hard it was to simply deposit checks written to the city.
"See, I don't know because nobody has ever asked her that question." Baldwin said. We tried to get answers from his daughter, but she did respond to our requests.
"She's basically out there with accusations that she can't even answer because no one's ever asked her other than a blanket -- well you stole money." complained Baldwin.
The mayor pro tem wanted to look further, but she said she was told if Dunn did commit a crime it would have likely happened outside the statute of limitations. The investigation stopped. But the missing money forced the city to reduce services, such as cutting its police department by half.
"That's a lot for this little city," she acknowledged. We asked whether she knows the extent of the city's financial mess.
"Probably not," she said. "There could still be a lot more that we have no idea about."
A forensic audit could look deeper into the records, but Pittman says that would likely cost the city at least $30,000. But just in case, last December she ordered police chief Paul Mazzuca to seal the box of records with evidence tape and lock it up.
"I never looked in the box." Mazzuca said.
Mazzuca became Aragon police chief last November, the city's fourth chief of 2018. This month he tangled with Mayor Baldwin over how best to schedule his four-man department, eventually resigning after the mayor threatened to fire him over a time sheet dispute which he insists was unfounded.
Mazzuca said one of the first things he had planned to do once the mayor left office in January was open the box and see whether the mayor's daughter had committed a crime that could be prosecuted.
"I believe if they do reopen it they're going to find more stuff in there than was actually investigated in the first place." he predicted.
Mazzuca said the current mayor never knew about his plans to reopen the investigation and doesn't think that had anything to do with his forced departure. But the fact that the box remains sealed means the city will never know the answer to a question so many here continue to ask. The same question we asked her father.
Can you say for sure your daughter didn't steal money?
"I've got confidence in her that she didn't," he said.