SURGOINSVILLE — Hanes Cooper will no longer oversee the day-to-day operations of the Surgoinsville Water Utility, although he will remain on the board of directors “for the time being,” board Chairman Lynn Norris said Tuesday.
By a vote of 2-1, with Cooper opposed, the SWU board voted Monday night to promote office manager Rita Dykes to general manager in charge of the day-to-day operations for the district.
Norris told the Times-News Tuesday that Cooper hadn’t officially been named general manager, but that he’d been running the day-to-day operations of the facility for many years.
But Norris said Cooper will remain a member of the board of directors.
“For the time being,” Norris said. “All that’s in the hands of a higher power. We don’t have any control over that, so we’ll just wait and see.”
That higher power may be the Hawkins County grand jury, which is expected to hear evidence of misappropriation against Cooper in an upcoming session. A state comptroller report released in October accused Cooper of receiving more than $65,000 in illegal payments.
The report alleges that between April 1, 1998, and Oct. 31, 2003, Cooper received payments from the SWU “in excess of his lawful compensation” totaling $30,310.
“Sometime in late 2003 a customer of the utility district apparently questioned district personnel regarding Mr. Cooper’s excess compensation,” the report states. “Subsequent to the customer’s inquiries, Mr. Cooper apparently directed that future payments be made to his daughter, Robin Hoffman.”
The comptroller’s investigative report alleges that between Jan. 1, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2007, Hoffman received payments totaling $35,215.
The report further alleges that although Hoffman signed time sheets, the investigation revealed that she allegedly only worked for the water utility on rare occasions, and “certainly not with the frequency indicated by her monthly time sheets.”
Hoffman is also employed at the Surgoinsville Post Office, and the comptroller’s report alleges that her time sheets from that job coincide with hours claimed on her utility district time sheets.
“Ms. Hoffman endorsed the backs of district checks issued to her, cashing most and turning others over to her father for his endorsement and deposit, or to be cashed by him,” the report alleges. “It appears that in order to conceal the continued unlawful payments, Mr. Cooper devised and directed a scheme by which fraudulent payroll payments were made to his daughter so that she could pass the proceeds on to Mr. Cooper .”
The comptroller’s report alleges that Cooper received a total of $65,525 in excess compensation.
Norris said the management change approved Monday was, “just something that needed to be done” and not necessarily related to the comptroller’s allegations.
“Rita has been there 18 years and she knows the system well,” Norris said. “We do need someone there who knows what’s going on and can handle day-to-day events and not have to fall back on the board. As a board member we’re not supposed to be in that role of day-to-day management anyway.”
Norris said Cooper was never officially placed in charge of the day-to-day operations at SWU, “But that seemed to be the case.”
“That’s kind of a gray area,” Norris said. “He was there and I think the people there looked to him for leadership,” Norris said. “But it was never made an official capacity. He was never elected into that position by the board.”
No one else had been either until Monday night, Norris admitted.
“Now someone has,” he said.
The SWU board also voted 2-1 Monday night to fire its attorney Crystal Goan, with Cooper voting against that move as well.
When the comptroller’s officer issued its report about Cooper in October, Norris referred the Times-News to Goan for press releases.
But when Goan told the Times-News in November that the board was standing behind Cooper and supported Cooper in the state investigation, Norris said Goan was inaccurate and didn’t express the feelings of the board as a whole.
“In that last article, that was not the position of the board,” Norris said. “I just felt like it’s her position to defend the innocence of the board and not to create guilt. I felt that article, the way she stated it, was trying to create guilt on the part of the board, and we are not. The (comptroller’s) report does not suggest that.”
The other board member who voted in favor of both changes was Don Thurman, who is also a Surgoinsville alderman.
Although Cooper is not charged with a crime, 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell told the Times-News in October that the allegations will be presented to an upcoming Hawkins County grand jury.