Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Owens should have let sleeping dogs lie

Mooresville citizens ousted Frank Owens from the town board in 2005 after two terms, the last of which was wracked by controversy and scandal.

He was sent packing rather quietly, considering the political atmosphere and sentiment at the time.

But now, eight years later, he has tossed his hat back in the ring, targeting the Ward 3 seat currently occupied by Mac Herring.

Owens has claimed that he is running for office because Herring voted to saddle Mooresville residents with MI-Connection, a $92.5 million cable company that Owens says the town had no business purchasing. And I fully agree with him on that.

But then Owens decided to get a little nit-picky. He recently went digging through his opponent's 2012 county vehicle-tax records and then broke his neck tattle-telling to the Mooresville Tribune about a $88.86 delinquency on Herring's part, which even a county collections official called “very common.” The Tribune contacted Herring, who paid the tax bill before the article was even published in the paper.

Owens attempted to use this as a chance to show, even further, that Herring is irresponsible with money, stating in the Tribune: “What does it say about a commissioner that uses tax dollars from the town and the county and does not pay all of his county tax dollars?” 

Herring's delinquent tax bill was $88.86. If Herring's vote for MI-Connection is Owens' only real talking-point during this campaign, which seems to be the case, then we need to compare apples to apples.

In 2005, Frank Owens rubber-stamped handing a $25 million engineering contract on what would later become an estimated $150 million project to a town-board friend, voting against the recommendation of town engineers who said the expansion of Mooresville's wastewater treatment plant should be completed by a more qualified (and overall less costly) firm.

At one point in Mooresville's history, such a decision would have slid right through, possibly without the public even knowing. But decades of backwoods dealings and good-ol'-boy politics came to an end in the early- to mid-2000s in Mooresville, when the sleepy town was rocked by one scandal after another, all while Owens sat on the town board. With support from the local media and new blood on the board, a new plan was created for the wastewater treatment plant expansion, which meant the overall price was lowered. And the firm that had originally been deemed most qualified by town engineers was given a supervisory role over the former board's choice of CH2M Hill.

But that didn't happen before the town's manager – apparently based primarily on commissioners' persuasion, including (by then former) Commissioner Owens – fired the town's engineer and utilities director, both of whom had vehemently stood up for the best interest of the town's taxpayers against Owens and his ilk … and in spite of personal risk. One commissioner said that the personnel files of the two employees were “completely empty” of any prior disciplinary action at the time of their firings. For more on the CH2M Hill scandal, click here and here

But the CH2M Hill controversy was just the tip of the iceberg.

Also during Owens' last four years as commissioner:
  • In 2001, Mooresville's librarian was indicted and later pleaded guilty to embezzlement for using public money for her private use. But her indictment came in spite of an apathetic Mooresville Town Board and only after an activist blew the whistle and persistently demanded that something be done about it. She also went to the press. An independent review by the Mooresville Tribune raised the possibility that tens of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise had been stolen from or through the library for half-a-dozen years before the indictment. 
  • In 2003, the town's former internal auditor, whose job it was to help prevent financial mismanagement and possible theft like that which had occurred at the library just a couple years prior, stated publicly for the first time that the town lacked financial controls and that her detection of those deficiencies – and her insistence that the town institute change – is likely what led to her firing after only eight months on the job. 
  • In 2004, the then-town manager fired the new town librarian, supposedly for spending more than town policy allowed for a meal. This resulted in another black eye on the town because of widespread scrutiny from newspapers and local television news about the overspending habits of Mooresville's government, primarily via travel and dining expenses. 
  • In 2005, despite the town having a full-time auditor, a finance director and an outside accounting firm that annually conducted an audit of the town's books, it once again took a concerned citizen – through his own volunteer financial probe – to identify a shortage in the inventory at the Mooresville Municipal Golf Course, which was already operationally bathed in red ink. A follow-up audit of the golf inventory showed about $5,000 of missing merchandise from the golf course pro shop. An editorial in the Mooresville Tribune stated: “The litany of mismanagement gets longer and longer, our town commissioners say little about it, and you, the taxpayers, foot the bill.”
  • Also in early 2006 - just after Owens was voted off the town board - the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visited the Town of Mooresville and confiscated town computers. To date, no one knows what the FBI was looking for, but most assume it had something to do with the town board, against procedure, granting its friend's engineering firm the lucrative $25 million engineering contract for the wastewater treatment plant expansion. One former commissioner said the FBI told commissioners that the agents were looking into actions of prior town-board members. He said he was specifically asked by the FBI if he thought former commissioners were receiving “kick-backs” for preferential awarding of contracts. “I don't believe they received money for it,” he said, “but it certainly showed poor judgment.”
And now word is finally public about a 2001 FBI investigation into Owens for public corruption, following a state probe into a Mooresville gambling hut. 

One former public official, during an interview about the investigation, said: “Frank Owens has a pattern of abusing power, whether it's as a police officer or a commissioner.

“We have gotten past the yahoo-style of government and crookedness and the 'you-aren't-my-friend-anymore' high-school politics.”

I could not agree more. A vote for Frank Owens on Tuesday is a vote to move Mooresville backwards. It's really just that simple.

Two years ago, commenters on this blog resurrected the issue of Owens' gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation. Owens contacted me via private message on Facebook at that time, asking me to remove the comments and to contact him. I did call him, and while stating that he was "just trying to lead a good, Christian life," he insisted that the gambling accusations were false. He offered to meet with me and tell “the truth” about what "had really happened." I saw no need; after all, he was a private citizen at the time, which meant that whatever had gone on in his private life was no longer the public's concern. Still, his behavior while he was a commissioner was and is fair-game for public scrutiny.

Now that he's running again for public office, the fact that he was investigated by the FBI for public corruption has become relevant for reporting; Owens' personal character is once again the public's business.

But Owens has clammed up again. He apparently doesn't want to talk about the scandal anymore; he still has not responded to Report questions sent in mid-October about his involvement in illegal gambling and the 2001 FBI investigation and grand jury. And the only thing that has changed from two years ago, when he wanted to talk about it, until now is that he's eyeballing a seat on Mooresville's town board.

Yes, Mac Herring, the Ward 3 incumbent, voted for MI-Connection during his first term on the town board. He made, in my opinion, a multi-million-dollar mistake. And I don't take that lightly. But if Herring's vote was so heinous, why did no one challenge him when he sought (and won) re-election in 2009? If Owens' motivation is to remove Herring from office to, as he claims, protect the taxpayers from a tax-and-spender, why did he wait another four years to do it? He could have run against Herring in 2009, but he didn't. In fact, no one did. Herring ran unopposed.

I was here, with a front-row seat, when Owens was last a commissioner. He and other board members gave the town one black eye after another. Far from being apologetic, they banned together and thumbed their noses at the public, over and over. Visits from SBI and FBI agents became almost commonplace. Shameful reports by newspapers and television news stations were plentiful; in fact, the material that Owens and other town-board members gave the Mooresville Tribune was enough to fill a wall with awards for investigative reporting and community service. The town became a laughingstock, notorious for scandal and controversy.

It was an ugly, politically restless period in Mooresville's history. I don't want to see it repeated, nor do I believe that anyone who was on the board at that time deserves a second chance to govern and shape policy in this town.

Herring voted for MI-Connection. But the SBI has not been in Mooresville since he's been a commissioner. The FBI hasn't visited, either, except – in the first few months of Herring's first term – to look into the actions of Owens and his fellow town-board members.

The public is smart enough to draw its own conclusions about that. And come what may on Tuesday.


Anonymous said...

It seems pretty clear that if Frank Owens genuinely wants to protect Mooresville, it isn't Mac Herring that he needs to protect us from; it's Frank Owens. Today would be the perfect time to withdraw from the election.

It also seems that things that happened can be called facts. Whether there was a court conviction, or not.

A Board Member who is too extreme to work with the rest of the board, teaming up with an embarrassment from the past, supported by a failed mayoral candidate. Not a group likely to lead Mooresville into a future of growth and expansion.

Please vote for Mac Herring and David Coble. Vote for Mooresville.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that Owens is a sneaky, lying, racist, power abusing pig. I have personally heard him use racial slandering's. His involvement with the gambling hut was well known, but in the usual mindset of the "good 'ol boy" mentality it was NEVER addressed or talked about. Both when he was a police officer, and I use that term loosely in regards to him, and after. He said he is living a Christian life, BULLSHIT. He is nothing more than a relic from the past that DOES NOT need to be placed back in any position of power or authority. It would definitely be a slide back for Mooresville and the fine men and women that protect and run this progressive and proud Town.

Carole said...

Great piece Jaime!

Anonymous said...

I know this. And you know this. But why wait so long to publish this report? And why not raise this to the broader public in a way that allows the uninitiated and apethetic to become informed? We know municipal elections get a miserable turnout from the most partisan citizens. . .this is critical information that should have been part of the discussion months ago.
We'll have to do our best to get informed and concerned people out to vote and hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

Vote Mac Herring. Don't know much about Owens and the past. I do know MI Connection is running now in the black. The big mistake was running MI Connection through Bristol Virginia Utilitiles. But even that is water under the bridge. Get out and vote. Put Mac back.

Anonymous said...

Vote Mac Herring. Don't know much about Owens and the past. I do know MI Connection is running now in the black. The big mistake was running MI Connection through Bristol Virginia Utilitiles. But even that is water under the bridge. Get out and vote. Put Mac back.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree about Mac. I wouldn't vote for Owens. Not in a million years. However, I think you're being generous calling this high school politics. This is the sort of stuff I expect to see on Renee Griffith's pre-school playground.

Anonymous said...

Where is the newspaper in all of this???????? The Tribune was neck deep in this crap exposing it when it was happening. Why was none of this brought up in the paper this election? Did anybody even see an endorsement???

Anonymous said...

Thank Jaime once again for keeping us informed and by the way Dusenbury has my vote for at Large,

Anonymous said...

Dusenbury is Mary Poppins next to Owens. the paper backs owens that is why they made such a big deal out of the $88 past due tax. the paper should be embarrassed by there behavior. they gave the article 1/4 page. should not have made the paper. Mi is in the Black and we need Mac Back. Vote for mac to keep Mooresville strong.

Anonymous said...

Why not do an end run around the papers and call the TV stations? Of course, it's Monday night and a bit too late in the game. Nevertheless, Owens is bad news and should not even be running, much less elected. There is no reason to let him think he's going to have an easy ride if he is elected.

And we are counting the days we have left of Redmond. Looks like you're going to have a busy year, Jaime. Y'all vote early and vote often.

Anonymous said...

You don't have to agree with Mac, but you can never question his integrity...a genuinely decent person. Furthermore, he'll take the time to discuss an issue and loves to actually talk ideas. He's the complete opposite of Owens. Vote Mac

Anonymous said...

I hate racists. I hate liars. I hate corrupt SOB's. It seems to me that Mooresville and Iredell has more than its share of them and Owens is overflowing with these lovely traits. I haven't heard the results but given the blasé turnout, I'm not optimistic.

Anonymous said...

Jamie can you investigate how our mayor has "handled" an alligation against a young man, which if true should have been a police mater. I have heard some really crazy stories. Some I can not believe. Because this involves family members, it too could show an "old boy" attitude by our "new and improved" government officials.