Lamar County landfill leaders cast doubt on FBI investigation. FOX 5 I-Team confirms: It’s true

Setting the record straight, or spreading misleading information?

That’s the question raised by an advertisement placed in a local newspaper by the Lamar County Regional Solid Waste Management Authority.

The FOX 5 I-Team has previously reported how a controversial waste-to-fuel project has tensions boiling within the small community near Macon, with some taxpayers railing against a $27.5 million state loan, more than six years of delays, alleged conflicts of interest, and no results.

Lamar County's controversial and much-delayed waste-to-fuel project is housed inside this former Enercon building not far from the landfill. (FOX 5)

The I-Team also reported earlier this year that the FBI’s Macon office is investigating the project, which was confirmed by Atlanta FBI spokesman Tony Thomas.

But a full-page ad, published in the March 5 edition of The (Barnesville) Herald Gazette, cast doubt on whether the federal investigation involves the solid waste authority at all. In one of several points laid out in the "Open Letter to the Taxpayers of Lamar County and the City of Milner," the authority called reports of the FBI probe "rumors" with "no basis in fact."

"To set the record straight on those rumors, the Authority simply has not been contacted or served with a subpoena or other request for documents or information from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, or any other law enforcement body, period," the ad said.

"The Authority is also not aware of any Authority employee, Board member, or vendor having been similarly contacted either," the ad said. "The Authority does not know who or what is being investigated by the federal authorities, but it is not the Authority."

This full-page ad in The (Barnesville) Herald Gazette will cost the Lamar County Regional Solid Waste Management Authority about $575, according to the newspaper. (FOX 5)

The statement prompted the I-Team to check back with the FBI’s Thomas, who said, "We stand by our original statement."

Vic Hartman, a former FBI supervisor over corruption and fraud cases, said federal agents usually don’t give courtesy calls to people or organizations they’re investigating.

"There’s some unusual circumstances where that might occur," Hartman, now an attorney specializing in white collar crime, said. "But typically, an investigator wants to know as much as they can before they approach the target they’re investigating, so they don’t get bamboozled and they don’t get lied to." 

Neither solid waste authority Executive Director Johnny Poore nor authority board chairwoman and county commissioner Nancy Thrash responded to messages about this story. Authority attorney John Richard declined to facilitate interviews, but said the authority stands by the content of the paid ad.

The controversy over the waste-to-fuel project blew up last year, but it dates back more than a decade. In 2014, the solid waste authority took out a $27.5 million loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, with the backing of the county government. The loan sum is nearly double the size of the county’s operating budget.

Solid Waste Authority Executive Director Johnny Poore (right) and authority attorney John Richard gave the FOX 5 I-Team a tour of the recycling center last year, but declined a request to return for this story. (FOX 5)

The plan at the time: build a waste-to-fuel project that would turn a profit by converting garbage into fuel and a char byproduct that could be used in the plastics and cement industries.

But the project fell more than six years behind its original completion date. Executive Director Poore blamed the lengthy delays on the COVID pandemic and unforeseen complications that required redesigns, re-engineering, re-permitting and relocation of machinery.

FOX 5 reported in December that some of the GEFA loan money went to Poore and people connected to him, including companies run by his nephew, his wife’s nephew and the late husband of Poore’s office manager.

Poore himself received $136,600 from 2015 to 2016 as compensation for overseeing construction of the waste-to-fuel project, on top of his regular salary. Records show he’s due to be paid that same sum again once the project is complete.

Mike Perry (right), one of the founders of the Concerned Citizens Group of Lamar County, wrote a letter to the editor as a retort to the solid waste authority's full-page ad. (FOX 5)

County leaders and upset taxpayers, calling themselves the Concerned Citizens Group of Lamar County, have been locked in war of words over the project since last year. While the authority insists taxpayers aren’t on the hook, the concerned citizens say the county could be if the project fails and the landfill runs out of useful life before the loan is paid off. The authority has also said that loan payments, which start in April, will be funded through contracts with landfill operator Amwaste.

The battle of words often spills into the local newspaper, and the March 5 paid ad wasn’t the first one placed by the solid waste authority.

It landed with a thud in many quarters of the county.

"I find a question mark on that, truthfully," said Donald Hartman, whose property faces the back of the former Enercon building near the landfill, where the waste-to-fuel project is housed. "I believe your team, yourself, actually confirmed that there was an investigation going on."

Donald Hartman, a member of the Concerned Citizens Group of Lamar County, has property facing the back side of the building housing the county's waste-to-fuel project. (FOX 5)

Mike Perry, one of the founders of the concerned citizens group, wrote a retort to the ad published as a letter to the editor in The Herald Gazette, pointing out that a Superior Court judge confirmed the existence of a federal investigation during a Feb. 8 hearing, which concerned a dispute over a records request for subpoenaed documents.

Perry’s letter said the full-page missive "contained some good news, many omissions and some plain old misleading statements."

"I don’t know why they’re doing it," he told the I-Team. "They’re leaving out a lot of information that they should be actually sharing with us, but they don’t."

According to the newspaper, the March 5th ad will cost the authority $574.05.

Vic Hartman, an attorney, former FBI supervisor and author of "The Honest Truth About Fraud - A Former FBI Agent Tells All," said no one having heard from the FBI doesn't mean the solid waste authority isn't part of the investigation. (FOX 5)

Hartman said he wouldn’t have advised publishing it.

"It’s a bad move for two reasons," he said. "There is an investigation. But secondly, this is taxpayers’ money. They’re representing the taxpayer here, in some regards. And so they have an affirmative duty to go forward and cooperate and clear this up."

Hartman, author of the book "The Honest Truth About Fraud – A Former FBI Agent Tells All," said if the FBI decides to drop its investigation, there probably won't be any announcement. The mission right now is to follow the money, he said.

"It’s, ‘Where did the funds go?’" Hartman said. "Is this just incompetence? And it can be both – you can have incompetence and fraud. But something’s amiss here. Not necessarily fraud."

Solid waste authority Executive Director Johnny Poore showed the I-Team the leachate evaporation system, which wasn't running at the time, during a tour of the facility on Nov. 27. (FOX 5)

The solid waste authority’s ad also contained some good news, saying, "The Authority is pleased to announce that with its recent permit from the Georgia EPD in hand, the Authority has begun operation of its leachate evaporation system."

This means that machines inside the waste-to-fuel project aren't all sitting idle anymore.

The plan to process rainwater runoff is supposed to free up landfill space and generate revenue. Poore, of the solid waste authority, previously said the leachate evaporators would be running by the end of 2023, but the authority had to wait for clearance from the state Environmental Protection Division.

The I-Team, which toured the facility last year, asked to see the leachate evaporators in action. The authority’s attorney declined, saying personnel at the recycling center are too busy.

According to one resident, steam has been billowing from evaporation stacks in the roof of the recycling center for about two to three weeks. (FOX 5)

Hartman said he's seen steam rising behind the treeline, coming from evaporation stacks in the roof of the old Enercon building, for about two to three weeks.

"It’s a good thing," he said. "But I still have a lot of question marks on the operation itself."

Poore previously told the I-Team that the entire waste-to-fuel project should be running by summer.