Fired Kenly town manager hired as new town manager of Spring Lake | Eastern North Carolina Now | The former town manager of Spring Lake, Gay Cameron Tucker, pleaded guilty in September to embezzling more than $500,000 from the town.

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is Theresa Opeka.

    In a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Town of Spring Lake Board of Aldermen voted in favor of hiring Justine Jones as its next town manager. Jones is the former Kenly town manager that was fired from the position in August.

    Jones' contract was terminated after Kenly's entire police force, along with its Police Chief, Josh Gibson, and two town clerks, resigned on July 20 due to what they say was a hostile work environment.

    In Gibson's resignation letter, he says, "Especially in the last three years, we have made substantial progress that we hoped to continue. However, due to the hostile work environment now present in the Town of Kenly, I do not believe progress is possible."

    Resignations of the chief, the officers, and two other town employees indicate that the "hostile work environment" was connected to the hiring of Jones as town manager.

    In her previous role, she sued Richland County, South Carolina, alleging that leaders and her supervisor were "hostile" and retaliated against her for reporting bad behavior. According to the report, Jones claims in the lawsuit include that she did not get fair compensation and was treated differently due to an illness.

    Mayor Pro Tem Robin Chadwick, Alderwomen Sona Cooper, and Adrian Thompson voted in favor of Jones. Aldermen Raul Palacios and Marvin Lackman voted against the nomination.

    "We drew from our past experiences, research, knowledge, and gut instincts to come to this decision," Lackman wrote on his Facebook page. "We differed on who we thought was the most qualified, but as a board, a decision was made."

    Spring Lake itself is no stranger to controversy. The former finance director and accounting technician for the town pled guilty on Sept. 21 to embezzling more than $500,000 from the town between 2016 and 2021.

    Gay Cameron Tucker pled guilty to one count of embezzlement from a local government receiving federal funds and one count of aggravated identity theft. Tucker faces up to 12 years in prison.

    According to the U.S. Department of Justice Eastern District of North Carolina, Tucker admitted that she wrote checks from the town's bank accounts for her personal use and admitted to forging the signatures of other town officials, including the mayor and town manager. These forged checks were made payable to herself, used to cover her personal expenses, and deposited into bank accounts she controlled.

    The FBI is investigating the case, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys William M. Gilmore and Karen Haughton are prosecuting the case.

    N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood's office referred an audit they performed on the town to the FBI. The audit indicates poor supervision was to blame: a report Wood issued states that the former finance director did not ensure that Tucker was reconciling bank statements, and "the Town Board of Aldermen neither received nor requested financial information on a consistent basis that would have revealed financial issues such as the misuse of town funds."

    The state examiners found that Tucker wrote 72 checks between 2018 and 2021 and deposited them into her local bank accounts and to Heritage Place Senior Living for the care of her mother.

    The Local Government Commission took control of the town's finances in October 2021 after some of the financial malfeasance came to light, resulting in concerns that the town couldn't balance its annual $13 million budget. State officials found that the town permitted spending that wasn't in the general fund budget. It was revealed that the town got a $1 million loan in October 2021 from the South River Electric Membership Corporation to build a fire station without getting LGC approval.

    North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell told Carolina Journal last month that he isn't convinced that the town leaders are interested in preserving the town after all the corruption that took place.

    "The Town of Spring Lake is still drowning," he said. "I am concerned about what's going to happen when the current interim city manager leaves. Are the citizens going to go back down the same rabbit hole they have been in for a decade or more?"

    Jones will become the next town manager of Spring Lake effective October 24, pending approval by the Local Government Commission, the Board of Aldermen, and the town attorney and acceptance of the contract by Jones.
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