Newton County cuts off payments to scuba store amid FOX 5's questions about conflict of interest

Newton County has halted all payments to a Covington scuba shop after a FOX 5 I-Team investigation revealed that a firefighter who owns the store has been doing business with the fire department.

For years, Into the Blue Scuba sold tens of thousands of dollars in specialized equipment and training to Newton County Fire Services, even though the store’s owner is a member of the dive team his store has been supplying. 

The relationship appears to violate the county’s Code of Ethics. It went on right under the noses of county leaders, and it’s unclear why no one put a stop to it.

"We are looking into the case in relation to our policies and the law and will take appropriate actions if necessary," County Manager Harold Cooper told the FOX 5 I-Team in an emailed statement.

Members of the Newton County Fire Services dive team wade into the waters of Lake Varner, on the north end of the county, for a training session on Sept. 12.

When a swimmer disappears into a lake or river, rescue dive teams have the grim duty of searching and pulling up the body. They might also search for important evidence of a crime, such as a weapon discarded in deep water. The state Department of Public Safety has a dive team, as do other cities and counties throughout the state.

Newton County and the City of Covington have had a joint dive team for decades. But about three years ago, Newton County Fire Chief Mike Conner decided his department would start its own team. That meant purchasing gear for team members, including wetsuits, dry suits, BCD jackets, regulators, masks, boots, knives, ropes, and even a new inflatable rescue boat. It also involved tens of thousands of dollars in training for dive team members.

Records obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team show more than $140,000 spent at Into the Blue Scuba for the fire department. Sales racked up after the store’s owner, Glenn Mikos, went to work for the department in 2019. He is currently a fire inspector, dive team member and scuba instructor for the dive team.

Glenn Mikos has been a firefighter for Newton County since 2019. He is currently a fire investigator, dive team member and scuba instructor for the dive team. He also owns a Covington scuba store that has been selling equipment and training to the co

Among the sales: $2,499 for a sonar device. $4,856 for an inflatable boat. More than $30,000 in training expenses. A $29,892 charge for six custom-fitted dry suits, 12 sets of undergarments, and six sets of diver boots.

The store’s role as the dive team supplier was never put out for bid by the county.

The government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia said most local governments bar employees from doubling as vendors. 

"That’s not allowed because it creates a clear conflict of interest," Common Cause Georgia Executive Director Aunna Dennis said. "There could be power/privilege dynamics. There could be misuse of funds."

Newton County’s Purchasing Policy says any purchase over $5,000 requires at least three competitive quotes. The policy forbids breaking up orders into multiple orders below $5,000. 

But the I-Team found 14 charges that came within a few hundred dollars of the threshold – all paid by the county. Three times, the Scuba store submitted invoices just two dollars under the threshold – including a $4,998 charge in August for training two team members, along with four knives and four shears.

"It tells me that someone knows the rules, and they know how to break the rules," Dennis, of Common Cause Georgia, said.

Newton County’s Code of Ethics says, "No official or employee shall acquire or maintain an interest in any business that is engaged in the sale of property, goods or services to the County …" The policy has exceptions if certain conditions have been met, such as going through a competitive bid process.

A county spokesman said the FOX 5 I-Team’s open records requests alerted the county to the potential conflict.

"As soon as this matter came to my attention, I instructed that no further payment or purchases be made to the vendor in question," County Manager Cooper’s statement said. 

How exactly the arrangement with Into the Blue Scuba developed is unclear because nobody’s taking questions. 

FOX 5 tried to talk to several county employees, including Finance Director Brittany White, whose department handles payments to vendors. All of them said they couldn’t speak about the issue and referred questions to the county spokesman.

Fire Chief Mike Conner didn’t return phone calls and wouldn’t come to the lobby when reporters visited fire headquarters.

Newton County Fire Chief Mike Conner, seen here at a Sept. 19 county commission meeting, declined to speak with the FOX 5 I-Team about one of his fire inspectors supplying goods and services for his own dive team.

Mikos declined an interview request, and when reporters tried to speak with him outside his store, he drove away in his fire department truck and parked across the street. Then Covington police arrived. An officer confirmed to FOX 5 that it was Into the Blue Scuba that summoned police. The officer advised reporters to stay out of the store and off the sidewalk around it.

Newton County’s commission chairman, Marcello Banes, spoke briefly outside a commission meeting.

"The County is looking into this matter, and we take these matters as serious, and we will find out exactly what’s going on," Banes said before walking away.

None of the payments to Into the Blue Scuba appear to have gone through the County Commission for approval. Commissioner Alana Sanders said she’s asked to see those records now.

"Once I have that, I’m going to get with the county manager, along with my Board of Commissioners, to make sure that we look at this in detail," Sanders said. "I want to make sure that our county is operating correctly."

Glenn Mikos, a Newton County fire inspector and scuba shop owner, watches members of the fire department's dive team train in Lake Varner on Sept. 12.

Members of a local watchdog group said Mikos and the fire department should be held accountable. 

"They know what the county codes and the ethics are," Denise Williams, of Concerned Citizens of Newton County, said. "They get a handbook. And so you can clearly read in the handbook that it’s a conflict of interest, and it’s unethical."