City documents indicate that Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop were instructed in writing that using city issued credit cards to pay for professional services, such as hiring an attorney to sue the city, is against city policy and could lead to their cards being revoked.
Countryman and Bishop are among four elected officials who are suing the city because they say their budgets are not sufficient to cover all of their mandated duties. They used their city-issued credit cards to pay $7,500 each to retain outside council. They paid in $1,000 increments over several days because larger charges require seeking bids.
When city Finance Director Pam Hodge discovered the charges, she sent both elected officials letters ordering them to repay the money or to submit a plan for it to be repaid or it would be taken out of their wages. She also suspended both officials’ credit card privileges.
One of their lawyers, Charles Miller, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order last week asking the court to order the city to reinstate access to the credit cards, to stop plans to collect the money and to restore budget line items to both of their budgets that had been designated for hiring counsel. It also asks the court to order the city to pay an interim award of attorney fees.
Miller earlier said that the documents attached to the letter Hodge sent did not prove that his clients were ever told that using the cards for professional services, such as attorney feeds, was against city regulations and could result in the cards being revoked. One of four sheets in Hodge’s letter included had the elected officials’ signatures, but it said nothing about professional services. One of the other sheets contained more detailed regulations, such as the professional services prohibition, but it was not signed. Miller said there is no proof that the sheets were included in the original email and that they could have been added later to bolster the city’s case.
Documents obtained Wednesday through an Open Records request indicate that all of the sheets were included as attachments in emails sent to all city card holders in 2013 and 2014.
Miller and Christopher Balch, co-counsel for Countryman and Bishop, released a written statement concerning the emails to their clients.
“Judge Hilton Fuller, who has now been assigned to hear our Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, has scheduled a hearing for Monday, Nov. 24,” the statement reads. “As the subject matter of our motion includes issues involving the credit cards it would be inappropriate for us, or any lawyer, to comment further at this time. We do, however, stand by our previous statements and look forward to having a judge resolve these issues.”Hodge said that all of the documents attached to the emails were sent to every city cardholder, including Countryman and Bishop, and that their credit card privileges remain suspended.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said that to his knowledge neither Countryman nor Bishop has repaid any of the money nor submitted a plan to repay the money, as they were directed to do in the letter.
Asked if the city planned to take the money from the elected officials’ wages, Fay said, “We’re going to let the courts decide that.”
Fay said he expected a judge to hear Miller’s motion for a temporary restraining order soon.
Because Muscogee County judges also are subject to city budget restrictions, an outside judge had to be appointed to hear the civil suits, including the motion for a restraining order.
Joe Baden, court administrator for the 3rd Congressional District that includes Columbus, confirmed that District Administrative Judge Edward Lukemire has appointed Stone Mountain Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller to preside. The hearing on the motion for a restraining order has been tentatively set for Monday at 10 a.m.
Reporter Tim Chitwood contributed to this report.