COVINGTON — Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis communicated with local media Thursday, taking full responsibility for a controversial no-interest loan to Commissioner J.C. Henderson from county funds.
News reports Wednesday raised concern around the county about an Aug. 12 check Ellis signed, drawn on the Board of Commissioners operating account and payable to Henderson for $4,500.
A promissory note signed by Henderson indicated that the money was for college expenses for Anthony Henderson, J.C. Henderson’s son. The loan was paid back anonymously Monday with a cashier’s check from a local bank.
“First, let me set the record straight by saying the other county commissioners had absolutely NO INVOLVEMENT (emphasis by Ellis) in approving the salary advance,” Ellis wrote in a statement released to the media and the BOC members Thursday afternoon.
“I deeply regret and apologize for the embarrassment this matter has caused them,” he wrote.
Commissioners Nancy Schulz, Lanier Sims, Levie Maddox and John Douglas criticized the cash advance when asked about it Wednesday and said they were not aware of it until after the fact.
In a telephone message Thursday morning to the Citizen, Ellis said, “It was a temporary loan – as you know it’s been paid back. I did check with the county attorney’s office and discussed the payroll repayment plan.”
Ellis pointed out that Anthony Henderson’s financial aid fell through at the last moment, creating the need for a hurried decision regarding the loan request.
“They were packed and ready to go to Tuskegee University there in Alabama. He is trying out for a scholarship for the basketball team. And it has been repaid,” Ellis said.
“There is no policy against it,” he said about cash advancements to employees or elected officials and repayment plans.
“He (Anthony Henderson) is enrolled in school as of that Tuesday. I believe it was less than two weeks that the loan was paid back. So, we do have a college student at Tuskegee from Covington,” Ellis said in the telephone message.
Commissioners Schulz and Douglas indicated they don’t believe county money should be used for loans.
“I think we have to remember, as (county attorney) Tommy Craig said, county government is not a bank,” Douglas said.
Schulz, who agreed with that statement, said her phone began ringing Wednesday shortly after the story broke.
“My first phone call came in around five o’clock, and I’ve been pretty much bombarded since,” she said.
The Citizen received a phone call from Thomas Buckner, a Covington resident living in Henderson’s district, who said, “Our tax money goes up there and it’s not for him (Ellis) to make loans, interest or no interest, to his commissioners. He has no right to do this.”
“We have some severe damage to repair. It’s on the four of us, the commissioners, who were not involved, to take the lead,” Douglas said.
Commissioner Levie Maddox weighed in with an e-mail to the citizen. “Now looking forward, the opportunity for elected officials for any type of advance of taxpayer dollars needs to be 100 percent eliminated,” he wrote.
According to Maddox, the BOC “recently asked the management team and legal to present options for a program that allows employees, with good standing, to have the option of structured cash advances that relate to documented hardships. Many organizations have EAPs, or Employee Assistance Programs. … At no time was there a discussion about elected officials being eligible.”