Austell police chief, medical marijuana commissioner under GBI investigation after I-Team inquiry

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation of Austell Police Chief Bob Starrett and the department’s K-9 expenses.

Starrett is also one of seven members of the Medical Cannabis Commission.

The investigation began after the FOX 5 I-Team sent an Open Records Request for veterinarian bills to the Austell Police Department. The I-Team was acting on a tip about the K-9 vet bills and wanted to know more about who ordered what from the vet. But our request wasn’t fulfilled, because before the city responded, they called in the GBI to investigate the bills.  

Reporter: "I wonder if I could talk to you for just a second about the GBI investigation of Chief Starrett?"

Vice Mayor Pro Tem Valerie Anderson: "No you cannot, not at this time. No comment."

Austell city leaders weren't in the mood to talk about a GBI investigation of their police chief before the council meeting on Monday night.  

Recently the I-Team reported how Chief Bob Starrett was not coming into the office, and we wanted to know why. The city wrote the I-Team saying "Chief Starrett is still employed with the City of Austell. Chief Starrett is currently not on leave..." 

It wasn't until we filed an Open Records Request for personnel records that we learned Deputy Chief Natalie Paulk had been promoted to interim chief. Two chiefs? 

The I-Team took those findings to legal ethicist Jessica Cino. 

"None of that has been shared with the community, and they really seem to be keeping a tight lid on it," said Cino.

That's when Mayor Ollie Clemons told the I-Team he was letting Chief Starrett work from home until he retired early next year. He said the chief was rewriting the police operating procedures.

One council member said it was simply a transition period between the two chiefs.

This is a very public position. It is a position the embodies public trust, and I would think the city would very much want to let its citizens know what is going on so they don't look like they're trying to cover something up," said Cino.

Bob Starrett has been Austell police chief for more than 20 years. He is also a member of the Medical Marijuana Commission. That commission is embroiled in controversy over its recent selection of six companies to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia.

Lawsuits and bid challenges have alleged secrecy, politics, and questionable scoring by commissioners, all of them political appointees by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House. 

"Do we need to step in and change this meltdown to getting this thing done," said State Representative Alan Powell. 

A legislative oversight committee is now discussing what to do next with the controversial bids.

Powell: "I take it for granted that the ones who did the judging were the commissioners." 

They were.

Powell: "And I would have loved if they had brought in a third-party consultant."

They didn't

"Well, a mistake," Powell said. 

While Chief Starrett worked from home and protest hearings were set for the medical marijuana awards, we filed another Open Records request.  The FOX 5 I-Team got a tip that we should examine the vet bills for the K-9 Unit, the name of the dog treated, and who brought the dog in. 

When the Austell police department got the Open Records Request, they came here to Bullard Animal hospital to get the vet bills. Employees didn't want to turn the bills over. The I-Team called the hospital to try to find out why but the office manager had no comment.

The Austell Police Department had some vet bills on-hand. When they looked at them, they found what has been described as discrepancies. Because they couldn't get the other vet bills, they decided to call in the GBI to investigate.

The GBI wrote to say:

"On Monday, November 29, 2021, the Austell Police Department asked the GBI to look into allegations of wrongdoings by Chief Bob Starrett surrounding the Austell P.D. K9 Unit. The investigation is active and ongoing."

Active, but still, no one is talking about it. 

FOX 5 emailed Chief Starrett to see if he had any comment, he did not respond.