Former county electrical inspector Michael Ray Richardson of Nakina has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of conflict of interest and repaid the county $1,160 after an investigation by the state’s Department of Insurance (DOI) accused him of defrauding the public.
Richardson was not arrested on any type warrant, but appeared with his attorney in District Court and agreed to a charge produced by the district attorney’s staff.
Richardson was placed on unsupervised probation for 12 months and a court review of his case is scheduled for April 27, according to records.
A misdemeanor statement of charges shows that Richardson admitted that he, on April 5, 2005, “ … unlawfully and willfully while an employee of Columbus County and employed as a building inspector engage(d) in work inconsistent with his duties or with the interest of the county by performing inspections for the county while having a financial or business interest in the project to be inspected.”
The fact that Richardson pocketed fees for electrical inspections made in the towns of Tabor City, Brunswick and Fair Bluff – money that should have been turned in to the county – was not a part of the court statement.
Assistant District Attorney Sarah Garner said Richardson repaid the county fees for 16 inspections he conducted during 2005. The conflict of interest charge was in reference to the approval of an electrical inspection done by Richardson on his own building project.
The plea bargain came after District Attorney Rex Gore announced on Sept. 29, 2005 that neither his office nor the State Bureau of Investigation – following a probe by the SBI -- would pursue charges of embezzlement by Richardson lodged by former Columbus County Manager Billy Joe Farmer.
34 jobs questioned
The Department of Insurance, however, announced in early October 2005 – two weeks after the district attorney announced there would be no charges – that Richardson pocketed fees for 34 inspections in Tabor City, Brunswick and Fair Bluff.
A question concerning Richardson’s inspection license is still up in the air. Kristin Runger, spokeswoman for the Department of Insurance, said Friday that a hearing in the matter is still scheduled, but no firm date has been set.
Richardson faces the loss of his license for one to five years.
The DOI report noted that records showed “that on Oct. 12, 2004, Richardson was employed as a full-time (Columbus County) employee at an annual rate of $35,276.04 per year with the understanding that he would turn in municipal fees from the towns …”
Richardson, the DOI report showed, did not start remitting fees to the county until April 27, 2005. Farmer, claiming several violations, fired Richardson and the DOI probe supported Farmer’s findings. County commissioners did not renew Farmer’s contract in July 2005.
There was a parallel charge by former county manager Farmer that Commissioners David Dutton, Sammie Jacobs and Lynwood Norris threatened to fire Farmer if he did not drop an administrative investigation into Richardson’s activities, and should be charged with obstruction of justice.
DA Gore announced in his September 2005 release that there was no evidence of the obstruction of justice charge by Farmer. This situation was not addressed in the DOI report.
The DOI probe noted “Columbus County Inspections Department records include at least 25 (Town of) Tabor City inspection certificates from Oct. 12, 2004 to April 7, 2005; (Town of) Brunswick inspection certificates from Jan. 19, 2005 to Feb. 17, 2005 totaled 8, and there was one inspection certificate for (Town of) Fair Bluff dated Dec. 22, 2004.
“All certificates were signed by Mike Richardson. All inspections were conducted after Richardson became a full time Columbus County employee. No fees were turned into the county for these inspections,” the DOI report shows.
One particular electrical inspection case was Tabor City’s welcome center, which was approved by Richardson on June 30, 2005, one day after being turned down by Kyle Duncan, another county inspector.
The report noted the county’s chief building inspector Kenny Davis on July 5, 2005 found “loose wiring hanging from the ceiling, new wiring with no switches, exposed old wiring, incomplete circuitry, additional fixtures including ceiling grids, lighting and base plugs needed for building function, and doors and windows not installed.”
The DOI report, written by Suzanne Taylor, came after an on-site investigation and interviews with appropriate people last October, nearly three months after Richardson had been fired.
“All I did was approve temporary service so the licensed contractor could make this change over. Any old wires photographed and the mention of doors being opened were all done after the building met code on June 15,” Richardson responded to the state.
“Obviously, during this modification process some windows, doors, old duct work or old wiring would have to be addressed,” the inspector said in a Sept. 12, 2005 letter to DOI’s Taylor.
Explains his project
Richardson’s response to inspection of his own electrical work and building project included, “Mitchell (Stephens), interim chief building inspector for Columbus County, knew full well that I would be doing the electrical, plumbing and carpentry work associated with this job, because I told him so.
“Mitchell told me that for what I was doing, the permit fee would be a total of $150, which seemed to be in line with what we would charge projects of a similar scale anywhere else in Columbus County,” Richardson’s statement continued.
Richardson wrote himself an electrical permit and inspection certificate on April 5, 2005 and inspected his own work and failed to pay the county for the permit, according to county records.
“The secretary in the office filled out the permit and checked ‘building’ and not ‘plumbing’ or ‘electrical.’ I am somewhat dismayed that I am being accused of stealing money when I did not calculate the fee or fill out any forms. I paid what I was required to pay, and there was no theft at all,” Richardson’s statement noted.
Then County Manager Farmer charged Richardson with embezzlement because his report showed agreements between Tabor City, Brunswick and Fair Bluff became effective Jan. 1, 2005, and was signed by Sammie Jacobs, chairman of the county commissioners.
The agreement stated Richardson was to “collect and deposit into the county’s bank account all fees associated with electrical inspections.”
Dates in question
Richardson said he was hired at the rate of $28,000 a year and was told to keep municipal inspection fees. However, county records show Richardson was employed full time on Oct. 12, 2004 at the rate of $35,276.04 per year with the understanding he would turn in municipal fees from the three towns in question, the DOI report showed.
It was during the Oct. 12, 2004 and April 7, 2005 period that Richardson made the 34 inspections in question and kept the fees, but Richardson was a full-time employee of the county, the state report said.
Richardson’s action made him guilty of a felony, the DOI report stated.
Richardson addressed the political infighting between Farmer and the county commissioners. The inspector said Farmer interviewed uncertified candidates “in an effort to not hire me. It was at this point that the County Commissioners encouraged their Manager to hire a local certified candidate for the job.
“This suggestion is at the heart of this whole issue. Mr. Farmer misinterpreted this encouragement and set out to destroy me as a way of swinging back at his bossmen,” Richardson wrote to the state.
Richardson is a former county commissioner.