Countryman, Bishop used city credit cards to hire lawyers to sue city

The city’s marshal and clerk of municipal court have had their city credit card privileges suspended and have been ordered to repay the city $7,500 each for using their city-issued cards to hire outside attorneys, according to copies of letters sent to them by Finance Director Pam Hodge.

In response to the letter, attorneys for Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop have filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop the city from attempting to collect the money and to reinstate their credit card privileges.

Countryman and Bishop paid local attorney Charles Miller and Atlanta attorney Christopher Balch $7,500 each and did so by making multiple charges of $1,000 each, according the letters. City employees are prohibited from making purchases larger expenditures without putting them out to bid.

The practice of paying for professional services, paying in multiple smaller amounts to circumvent city policies and hiring outside legal help without the knowledge and approval of the city attorney’s office violate city regulations, the letter states.

The letters, dated Oct. 29, were hand delivered and sent by registered mail. They are identical except for to whom they are addressed. They include copies of the purchasing card program cardholder agreement that outlines the rules for use. The agreements are signed by Bishop and Countryman.

“This is a very serious matter,” the letter states. “The purchasing policies and purchasing card program guidelines specifically prohibit the use of the credit card for professional services

“More troubling is the fact that you were specifically notified, as early as July 23, 2014, by the City Attorney, that you would not be reimbursed for seeking outside counsel for your office.”

The letter further demands that the officials repay the money, or else, and that their card privileges were suspended.

“After consultation with City Council, it has been determined that the misuse of the purchasing card must result in revocation of the privileges of this card,” the letter states. “Reimbursement in the full amount of the unauthorized charges will need to occur within ten (10) days. Please note that the failure to respond with full repayment or a satisfactory repayment plan will result in future payroll deductions ”

The letters are signed by Hodge and copied to members of Columbus Council, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, City Manager Isaiah Hugley and City Attorney Clifton Fay.

In their motion to stop the city, Balch and Miller called for a halt to the collection efforts, restoration of privileges and an order that the city pay both elected officials’ attorney fees.

At a press conference this afternoon announcing Bishop’s, Countryman’s and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce’s lawsuits against the mayor and other city officials, including all Columbus Councilors, Miller contended that his clients had done nothing wrong and in fact, it is the actions taken by the city that are illegal.

“We’re going to ask a judge to put a stop to that and enjoin them from taking that action because they are illegal in our opinion,” Miller said. “The same city that has told my clients on numerous occasions that once their budgets are allocated, they can spend them however they please, now comes back and says they can’t do that.”

Tomlinson defended Hodge’s action to recover the money, which she contends that the city both elected officials knew from experience that they are not automatically guaranteed taxpayer-paid legal representation.

“They were both very well aware of this process,” Tomlinson said.

In 2009, when both Countryman and Bishop were under a GBI investigation, they asked the city to pay their legal fees, and the city declined unless or until they were to be exonerated, Tomlinson said. Ultimately, the GBI declined to recommend prosecution of Countryman and Bishop, so they petitioned Council to pay their legal fees. Council agreed.

“So they’re well aware of this law,” Tomlinson said. “It’s been applied to them in the past and it’s clear they knew what they were doing when they used their city credit cards to pay their lawyers.”

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