The state Office of Inspector General has concluded that Georgia Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle acted properly earlier this year when she overruled lower-level engineers in favor of a median break on the Oconee Connector.
Although the Office of Inspector General only has responsibility for the executive branch of government, it also concluded that local commercial real estate agency owner Jamie Boswell did not “inappropriately impact the design decision” Pirkle made.
Boswell represents Oconee and surrounding counties on the State Transportation Board, which is an agency of the state legislature, not the executive branch.
Boswell’s company also is listing the 47 acres owned by Maxie Price’s Deferred Tax LLC. Price wants to develop the site on the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector as a commercial shopping center anchored by a Publix.
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on May 4, 2021, turned down the request by Price after raising questions about access to the property from the Connector and from Mars Hill Road.
Inspector General Scott McAfee acknowledged in the July 29 letter he sent to Gov. Brian Kemp that he had no authority to pass judgment on Boswell’s role in the decision and gave no reason for his decision to do so.
Reasons For Decision
McAfee said he based his decision that Pirkle and Boswell had behaved appropriately on “three primary findings.”
|Bowell (GDOT Photo)|
McAfee said Pirkle made her decision to allow the media cut because of a commitment GDOT had made in 1997 and reaffirmed in 2009, before Price bought the property and Boswell was elected by area legislators to the Transportation Board.
According to county tax records, Price purchased the three parcels that make up the 47-acre site he was trying to rezone for the shopping center in 2006.
Boswell was elected to the state Transportation Board by area legislators in February of 2013.
In addition, McAffee said in his letter to Kemp, Price “conveyed the documents” reflecting the earlier commitment, first through Transportation Board Chairman Rudy Bowen “and later through Mr. Boswell.”
Finally McAffee wrote, “each person interviewed by OIG convincingly described the median decision as a routine matter that did not raise alarm.”
Inspector General McAfee said he had undertaken his investigation of the Pirkle decision to overrule District Engineer Kelvin Mullins after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article on April 30 of this year.
That article, McAfee wrote, suggested that Boswell “improperly influenced a highway design decision made by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
“In response, and on its own accord, the Office of the State Inspector General (OIG) opened an administrative inquiry into the matter,” McAfee said in his letter on July 29 to Kemp.
The Office of the Inspector General “diligently investigates fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption in the executive branch," according to the agency's web site.
The Inspector General is appointed by the Governor, and the staff of the Office of Inspector General serves at the pleasure of the Inspector General.
Reports of investigation are provided to the Governor and the department head of the agency or person under investigation, according to the web site.
In the letter McAfee sent Kemp, McAfee wrote that “OIG has concluded its inquiry and determined that no violation of the Code of Ethics occurred, that GDOT employees acted appropriately and professionally, and that the highway design decision was made without undue influence.”
|Pirkle (GDOT Photo)|
“The State Transportation Board is a constitutionally-enumerated component of the Legislative Branch comprised of individuals elected by certain members of the House of Representatives and Senate,” the letter continued.
“Thus, OIG limited its findings to the actions of the relevant GDOT employees overseeing the highway project at issue.”
The letter does not explain why McAfee subsequently wrote, as one of his two main findings, that Boswell had not behaved inappropriately.
Background On Price’s Request
In fact, much of the content of the four-page letter deals with Boswell’s role in the decision by Pirkle to send Price a letter on April 6, 2021, telling him that “GDOT will honor previous commitments” and include a full access commercial median break in the new design of the Connector.
GDOT currently is designing a multi-grade intersection for SR 316 and the Oconee Connector, just north of where Price proposed to locate the main entrance to the shopping center. The entrance would have had both a median and a traffic signal.
Price had asked the county to combine his three properties into a single tract to be zoned for development of the shopping center, which would include a grocery store as the main tenant and retail shops, restaurants, a hotel, and a car dealership.
Sembler Corporation of Florida was to be the developer of the proposed shopping center with Publix as the grocery store operator.
Though Price had threatened to file a legal challenge to the county action, he did not do so. He is free to come back to the county with a modified plan for the shopping center.
In the meantime, the GDOT has turned responsibility for the Oconee Connector back to the county, meaning that the county, not GDOT, now has responsibility for access to the Connector.
Boswell, Bowen, And Price
According to McAfee’s letter to Kemp, District 1 Engineer Mullins and District 1 Traffic Engineer Jason Dykes told investigators that the district project team determined in January 2021 that the existing median on the Oconee Connecter eventually would be closed due to construction of the new interchange.
|Bowen (GDOT Photo)|
“The district engineers based this decision primarily on GDOT policy guidelines that require a certain distance between median breaks, a requirement that the current median break would not satisfy,” McAfee wrote.
Neither Boswell nor Price contacted the engineers, McAfee said.
On or about February 12, 2021, State Transportation Board Chairman Bowen gave Chief Engineer Pirkle “a collection of documents” that included a 1997 letter from former GDOT Commissioner Wayne Shackelford promising to preserve the median opening on the Oconee Connector, McAfee wrote.
Chief Engineer Pirkle wrote “Rudy and Jamie” at the top of her copy of the 1997 letter “to remind her that Mr. Boswell should be kept updated on the matter as the highway was located in Mr. Boswell’s Congressional District,” according to the McAfee letter to Kemp.
McAfee said Pirkle “was never aware of Mr. Boswell’s connection to the property owner until the approximate time of the AJC article’s publication.”
“Chairman Bowen obtained the documents directly from the property owner, Maxie Price, who Chairman Bowen knew as a former resident of his Congressional District,” the letter continues.
McAfee said that Price’s attorney contacted Boswell “and asked him to convey the same 1997 letter and related documents to the appropriate GDOT officials.
|McMurry (GDOT Photo)|
This request was “Approximately one month after Chief Engineer Pirkle received the documents from Chairman Bowen, and before she had officially conveyed her final decision.”
“Mr. Boswell agreed and eventually delivered the documents during an in-person meeting with GDOT’s Commissioner and Chief Engineer Pirkle,” McAfee wrote.
McAffee was referring to Commissioner Russell McMurry, who was copied on the letter, though his name was misspelled as McMurray.
“Mr. Boswell believed that the Commissioner was aware of his business relationship with the property owner,” McAfee wrote.
After acknowledging this joint meeting involving Boswell, McMurry and Pirkle, McAfee added that “Mr. Boswell never contacted Chief Engineer Pirkle or discussed the project with her individually before she made the final design decision,” McAfee wrote.
Findings, First Reason
“After conducting multiple interviews and reviewing the relevant documents, OIG has determined that Mr. Boswell did not inappropriately impact the design decision and that GDOT’s employees performed their roles ethically and without undue influence,” McAfee wrote at the beginning of what he called a “Findings” section of the letter.
McAfee said he based this conclusion on “three primary findings.”
“First, and most significantly, OIG confirmed the existence of historical documentation justifying the decision,” McAfee wrote.
“As pointed out by Mr. Boswell and Chief Engineer Pirkle, the decision to overrule the district traffic engineer would not have been made but for GDOT’s prior commitment,” the letter to Kemp states.
“Second, the AJC article did not accurately describe the events preceding the final design decision,” McAfee said.
“OIG’s inquiry revealed a corrected timeline of events that diminishes the appearance of impropriety,” according to McAfee.
“Specifically, Chief Engineer Pirkle first received the documents from Chairman Bowen without any involvement from Mr. Boswell,” according to McAfee’s letter.
“The property owner initially conveyed the documents through Chairman Bowen, and later through Mr. Boswell, with the two board members acting separately and independently,” the letter continues.
“Third, each person interviewed by OIG convincingly described the median decision as a routine matter that did not raise alarm,” the letter states.
“Each GDOT employee expressed confidence in the department’s integrity throughout the entirety of their multi-decade careers,” according to the letter to Kemp.
McAfee told Kemp he does not expect a response to the report.
“However, should you require additional information or assistance in this or any other matter, we remain available at your convenience,” the letter ends.