OKTIBBEHA COUNTY — A former county road department foreman who is suing the county for wrongful termination and malicious prosecution now faces a felony embezzlement charge for allegedly stealing gas from the county while he was still an employee.
Thomas H. Smith, 42, turned himself in to special agents with State Auditor Shad White’s office this week, White announced in a press release Thursday. Smith was served indictment papers and a demand letter for $657.20, which the release said includes the amount of gas he embezzled between June and August 2019, plus interest and investigative expenses.
Smith is accused of siphoning fuel from a county-owned truck into containers he hid on the side of the road, the release said. Then he would allegedly return to the location in a personal vehicle and retrieve what he had siphoned. He was released from county jail after posting $5,000 bond.
Because the case involves a public employee embezzling public resources, it is a felony charge, despite the relatively low monetary value, Logan Reeves, the state auditor’s media relations officer, told The Dispatch. If convicted, Smith could face up to 10 years in prison.
“It’s immaterial the dollar amount,” Reeves said. “Our office is dedicated to identifying and pursuing all instances of stolen or misappropriated assets that belong to the taxpayers.”
Smith was terminated in August 2019, and the county pursued a misdemeanor embezzlement charge against him in Justice Court, which was dismissed without a trial.
Though the final order in Justice Court noted Smith as “not guilty” of the charge, District Attorney Scott Colom, who is handling the new charge, said Justice Court does not have jurisdiction to acquit a felony. After the auditor’s investigation, Colom’s office presented Smith’s case to a circuit court grand jury, which voted to indict.
On Feb. 1, Smith filed a lawsuit in circuit court against the county board of supervisors and Road Manager Fred “Hal” Baggett, alleging he was targeted for being a whistleblower in the department and that the county had not prosecuted others who were terminated for similar allegations.
Smith maintains he never took county property for personal use, and he believes the new embezzlement charge is retaliation for his lawsuit.
“I’d say two or three times I siphoned gas from the county truck, but it was to put it in the welder,” Smith told The Dispatch in an interview Thursday, noting he was responsible for welding bridges in far-flung rural areas of the county.
“Really, this has nothing to do with guilt or innocence,” Smith said earlier in the interview. “It has to do with process and malicious prosecution.”
Becoming a whistleblower
Smith said he worked for the road department a little more than four years, starting as an equipment operator and eventually being promoted to foreman for new construction.
When Baggett was hired in July 2017, Smith said he “didn’t really hit it off” with his new boss.
“He and I didn’t really agree on how to build a road,” Smith said. “I wanted to build them the right way.”
Nevertheless, Smith volunteered to be the department’s health and safety coordinator when the spot was available, he said, which put him in a position to report those types of violations.
Smith said he regularly reported violations as needed, as well as alerted Baggett of many other types of misconduct — ranging from employees logging excess overtime to using county equipment for personal purposes.
“I never turned anybody in for anything they didn’t do,” Smith said. “… I caught people stealing dirt, using equipment after hours, but nothing was ever done.”
He also said he expressed concerns to Baggett over one of the road department’s three shops being staffed entirely by Black employees, while the other two shops were “integrated.” White employees were passed over for jobs or promotions that would have placed them with that shop, Smith claims.
All those complaints made Smith a target for scorn, he said, as well as claims he was racist.
On one occasion, Smith said Baggett instructed him to quit whistling the tune “Dixie” in the shop.
“I wasn’t written up for it,” Smith said. “I was just told it was antagonizing the Black employees.”
In both his suit and his interview, Smith alleges his termination and prosecution were contrived to push him out of his job and punish him.
“I was definitely targeted, no doubt,” he said. “I guess for just being a whistleblower.”
County Administrator Emily Garrard told The Dispatch that Smith’s “targeting” claims are bogus.
She said someone complained directly to her about Smith stealing gas, and she referred that information to the sheriff’s office to investigate. That investigation revealed ample evidence, including video, of Smith’s culpability, Garrard said.
Garrard did admit she did not turn over case information to the State Auditor’s office until after the charge was dismissed in Justice Court and after the county became aware of Smith’s intent to sue. However, she denied ever turning a blind eye to any complaints directed to her.
“If somebody were to bring me a complaint, it would definitely be forwarded to the appropriate agency,” she said. “If that information is not brought to me, then I can’t do anything about it. … This is the only time when a complaint like this was brought to me.”
Other suits against Baggett
Smith’s lawsuit is one of four active civil complaints former or current road department employees have filed against the county and Baggett in circuit court.
The county’s legal liability insurance carrier settled a federal lawsuit where a Black ex-employee alleged several instances of Baggett, who also is Black, using racist language toward him — including saying his dreadlocks made him look like a “Black savage Viking.” Other employees have also lodged various complaints against Baggett.
Of the three other active lawsuits in circuit court — brought by Demetric Clay, Eric Clay and Doris Harris, respectively — all deal with such accusations as harrassment, unsafe working conditions, discrimination or wrongful termination.
Smith spoke up for Eric Clay and Doris Harris when they took their complaints about Baggett before the board of supervisors in October 2018, after which Baggett was suspended two days without pay.
In Demetric Clay’s suit, he alleges after he used county equipment for personal purposes, he was originally told he would be suspended two days. Later his punishment changed to two weeks, then Baggett — citing Smith’s recent termination — fired him instead.
The suit says Baggett decided to fire Demetric Clay “to mask and try to disprove” any race claims Smith might bring against him.
When reached by The Dispatch Thursday, Baggett declined to comment for this report.
‘Either he stole the gas or he didn’t’
District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller said numerous county employees call her with corruption claims. She’s forwarded a host of them to the Auditor’s Office for investigation.
“Tommy was one of those employees who would call me when he saw something that wasn’t right,” she said.
Yet, she finds it strange he is the only one being prosecuted. At least one other employee who had stolen gas in the past was fired and never prosecuted, she said.
After Smith was first accused of embezzlement, he said he contacted Miller to tell her where road department employees were misusing county equipment and resources. Miller told The Dispatch she went to the site, witnessed the wrongdoing and forwarded the information to the Auditor’s Office the next day. A few weeks later, she sent it to the sheriff’s office.
In an executive session where the supervisors discussed the issue, Miller said her fellow board members chastised her.
“It wasn’t about what these employees did, it was about whether (I) documented it,” she said. “I was point-blank asked whether I took pictures. My response was, ‘No,’ and I could say that honestly because I took video.
“I believe if you want to enforce the rules, you have to follow the rules,” she added. “… I hope Audit comes in here and gets anybody and everybody doing anything illegal.”
Board President Joe Williams, who represents District 5, wouldn’t comment to The Dispatch about Miller’s claims. To Smith’s case, he was frank.
“Either he stole the gas or he didn’t,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line here.”