Former deputy coroner could face ethics charge

Double billing alleged against coroner's office

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 11, 2012 

The Alabama Ethics Commission has found probable cause that a former deputy coroner of Russell County violated a state ethics law that prohibits public officials from using their positions for personal gain.

The panel heard evidence last week against Richard W. Tyson, who resigned his part-time position in July amid allegations he directed county business to his own transportation service. The business had been used by the Russell County Coroner's Office for transporting bodies to Montgomery, Ala., for autopsy.

"We were unable to determine an amount (of money), but it appeared it had been going on for some time," said Hugh R. Evans III, the ethics commission's general counsel. "We are sending our file to the district attorney over there for his review and possible presentation to a grand jury."

A complaint reviewed by the commission included accusations that the coroner's office at times double billed the county and Phenix City for transporting the same bodies. But Tyson's defense attorney, James H. Anderson, said an appearance of double billing had been caused by "sloppy bookkeeping."

He noted that Tyson, as deputy coroner, lacked the authority to approve billings to third-party transportation services.

"He didn't sign any checks to himself," said Anderson, a former chairman of the ethics commission who began representing Tyson after he'd given a statement. If Tyson did violate the ethics law, he did so unknowingly, Anderson contended, and it would be a "minor violation" that could be handled "administratively" by payment of a fine.

"That's something that may or may not happen," Anderson said. "I think it will be straightened out."

Kenneth L. Funderburk, the Russell County attorney, recalled "some conversation" between city and county officials about double billing, but he said the problem had since been remedied by a new law that strengthened billing requirements for coroners.

"I do remember that, at that point, we did have to insist on them following the procedure," Funderburk said of the coroner's office. "Of course, if you follow the procedure, you wouldn't have had a problem."

Russell County Coroner Arthur L. Sumbry Jr. denied there has been any double billing on his watch.

"Ever since I've been the coroner of Russell County, there seems to be a small group of conspirators," Sumbry said. "But when death comes, I will serve their families just the same as I have all the families of Russell County, and that is with compassion and professionalism."

Sumbry wouldn't comment on Tyson's resignation, and he claimed he did not know whether Tyson owned the transportation service his office had used. The Alabama Secretary of State lists Tyson as the registered agent of the business, known as Special Operations Transport.

The coroner's office now uses its own van to transport bodies, Sumbry said.

Tyson could not be reached for comment Thursday. County administrator LeAnn Horne did not return messages seeking comment.

Tyson resigned his position July 6. County officials said he had been making about $8,000 a year.

The ethics commission began its inquiry in March after receiving a formal complaint from Jerry "Jay" Williamson, a Phenix City blogger who said he received a tip about the alleged scheme. He passed along the information to Montgomery with supporting documentation.

"These people in authority in Russell County and Phenix City are getting away with more serious things than I did, and I went to prison for it," said Williamson, a convicted felon. "I think everybody should be held accountable."

Among the first signs of suspicion, Williamson said, was a 1099 tax form outlining $2,990 in non-employee compensation paid by the Russell County Commission to a former employee of Tyson's service. The form included the man's Social Security number but used an informal version of his name and, according to Williamson, was addressed to the home of Tyson's mother.

The man, who asked his name be withheld so he could preserve his business relationships, told the Ledger-Enquirer he only learned of the outstanding tax form after a friend called him from the county commission office. In a sworn statement to the ethics panel, the man said the information listed on the tax form "is in fact false in several ways," noting he never worked for the county commission or coroner's office.

County commissioners this week said they had heard rumors of an ethics investigation pending for months. But commissioners have not yet acted on the allegations.

"It has not officially raised itself to this commission level -- all we know is what we're hearing," said Commissioner Tillman M. Pugh. "We know there's something to come. As soon as it comes out, then we would ask the department head to explain what's going on and why."

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