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Go to myAJC.com to watch video of Commissioner Tommie Lee Bryant’s public comments about his property tax exemption.
State investigators are looking into whether a middle Georgia politician has been ripping off taxpayers by claiming to be a disabled veteran to avoid property taxes and then changing county records to extend the exemption to his son’s home.
Twiggs County Commissioner Tommie Lee Bryant stunned members of his own board earlier this month when he admitted he was not a fully disabled veteran. County tax officials say Bryant has claimed the service-related disability for years to avoid paying taxes on his Jeffersonville house.
“There is more than one way to get 100 percent (disability). In other words, I’m not (a) 100 percent disabled veteran,” Bryant said in a video of the Aug. 16 commission meeting provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I ain’t but 60 percent and I can show it to you in black and white.”
Bryant said the remaining 40 percent of his disability comes from “unemploymentability.” Bryant did not specify how he is disabled and tax officials say they have no documentation on file supporting the claim.
Twiggs County, a rural county of about 9,000 people southeast of Macon, excuses disabled veterans from paying taxes on their primary homes. The hitch is that the homeowner must be 100 percent disabled as a result of their service, said Walter Ashby, chairman of the Twiggs County Board of Tax Assessors.
That would appear to be a problem for Bryant, a long-serving commissioner who has received the exemption for at least two decades.
Bryant made his admission in the course of a long, wild tirade that Commission Chairman Ken Fowler described as “fairly common.” Fowler can be seen in the video dropping his head into his hands during Bryant’s speech and turning to Commissioner William Bond in disbelief.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t say nothing,’” Fowler recalled.
The drama also has racial undertones. Bryant is one of two black commissioners and his accusers are white. Bryant said he was the victim of discrimination, but Ashby said he was not singling Bryant out.
Audit raises questions
Bryant came under scrutiny when an audit of the county’s tax records revealed his disabled vet exemption had been transferred to a house he co-owns with his son. Records show Bryant’s primary residence received another exemption — one reserved for low-income senior citizens.
Trying to claim tax exemptions on two houses is not allowed and Bryant has not shown he is eligible for either, Ashby said. Where Bryant might find real trouble is in how the exemptions were added to the properties in the first place.
An internal investigation by the tax assessor found records were altered by Yolanda Thomas, a relative of Bryant who worked in the tax office. When the tax board met in May to determine whether to fire the employee, Bryant barged in and said he had told his relative to change the records in the computer, according to statements signed by the board members.
Those same statements and the meeting minutes indicate Thomas admitted she knew it was wrong to change the records.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into the allegations, but Bryant confessed his role in the affair as part of his long spiel during the commission meeting.
“Ms. Thomas isn’t going to take a dive for me. She didn’t do that. I went and did it,” he said.
GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said the investigation is in its early stages and could not comment further on it.
Bryant: ‘I’d do it again’
Changes in exemptions have to be approved by the tax board, which thanks to the results of the assessor’s internal audit, never happened. Bryant appears to be hanging his hat on the fact that he never collected on the dual exemption, but he is unrepentant about trying.
“If I could do it for my son, I’d do it again,” he said in the meeting. “Anybody in here would do what they could to help their children along the way.”
“As long as it’s not illegal,” Ashby responded.
“I don’t want to hear about legal. I’m not talking to you. I didn’t ask you no questions,” Bryant shot back at Ashby. “I’m glad you brought the GBI in. All the sudden I turn around and it’s GBI, GBI this, GBI that. Illegal this, illegal that.”
In a brief telephone interview, Bryant said the allegations against him are lies, but he did not elaborate. Instead, Bryant attempted to deflect attention by suggesting that $80 had gone missing in the tax office and that state investigators should look into that too.
When I attempted to steer questions back toward claims that he had avoided paying taxes on his home for the past two decades, Bryant exploded.
“If you don’t want to do what I say to do, then get the hell off my phone,” he said, hanging up.
Exemptions hurt poor county
Ashby said the whole affair casts a shadow on Twiggs County, a county where people and the county government struggle to make ends meet.
“Shame on him,” he said of Bryant. “We have people out here trying to live and raise and family on $12,000 to $15,000 a year.”
Twiggs County is so strapped for cash that a few years ago it opened a new library, then abruptly closed it because there was not enough money to operate it. The library is open now, but clearly money is an issue for the county government and the county's generous tax exemptions take a bite.
Ashby said his office is in the process of auditing all of the exemptions they have on file for disabled veterans and senior citizens. Together they cost the county more than $16 million annually in tax revenue, but Ashby said prior administrations rarely required taxpayers to submit proof that they deserved them. Forms to verify income for low-income seniors typically were filed blank, he said.
The investigation into Bryant's taxes likely will be rolled into another state investigation into whether county commissioners improperly received reimbursements from the county's health insurance. Bryant is implicated in those allegations too.
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