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Ameris Bank says there was no impropriety in bid process
Roger Reese
Roger Reese's attorney claims Reese was put on administrative leave because he wouldn't violate board policy and state law over handling of bids for bank services. The attorney for the school district denies the allegation. - photo by File photo

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James Rogers, market president of Ameris Bank in Hinesville, said the bank obeyed the letter of the law and Liberty County School Board policy when it submitted a sealed bid to provide banking services for the Liberty County School System.

He called an accusation made by LCSS’s chief financial officer Roger Reese’s attorney Matthew Billips “absurd.”

Rogers’ response follows Billips claim in a letter to school board members that LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee violated school board policy and state law with regard to recent sealed bids for banking services the system received from Ameris Bank and Heritage Bank.

Billips also claims Reese has been put on administrative leave and faces losing his job because he refused to support Lee’s recommendation to choose Ameris Bank.

The letter seeks his reinstatement and more than $33,000 in back pay, claiming Reese has been underpaid since his hiring in 2014.

The letter to Lee from Reese’s attorney claims both Reese and the committee recommended Heritage Bank, which at the time was the district’s bank, be awarded the contract.

But Billips’ letter said that instead of submitting the recommendation to the school board at its January meeting, Lee tried to get Reese to change his recommendation to Ameris Bank, where her husband is a mortgage loan officer.

The letter also claims Lee continued to insist that Reese reach out to Ameris Bank to request a revised proposal, in violation of state law and board policy. Reese refused.

Rogers said the allegations of impropriety are false.

“No one ever contacted us for a revised proposal. We presented our sealed bid on time as required by the RFP (Request for Proposal) which was opened in front of myself, Anna Puckett which works with us, Mr. Reese, (LCSS Assistant Director of Finance) Janine Graham and Chris Ellison from the Heritage Bank. They were opened and recorded that only two bids were sent in…Ameris and Heritage,” Rogers said adding the bids were opened during a meeting set up by Reese.

Rogers said bids from Ameris and Heritage Bank were then presented to the board during a retreat meeting held Dec. 13 at 4 p.m.

“The exact same proposal,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the sealed bids were opened by Reese, who in turn made copies that were provided to the board, Lee and the financial services committee.

“We did not provide copies…And then the day of the presentation to the board at the retreat, I had my copy but they already had their copy,” Rogers said. “I presented mine in full. Every item I discussed and they had their copy.”

In his letter Billips also claims Lee’s recommendation of Ameris Bank,” exposes her to charges of nepotism and ethics violations because she is recommending that they (BOE) accept a bid that has the potential of providing financial benefits to her husband.”

“The board knew that Gerald Lee is a mortgage originator here…they know that and if they are aware of it there is no conflict,” Rogers said. “He is a mortgage originator. He does not work for me. He works for our mortgage origination group out of Atlanta. He gets paid for mortgage originations. He does not get a dime from the bank for anything else.”

He added the bank made sure everything was done in accordance to law. Rogers said the board likely picked Ameris due to the services they could provide.

“I can tell you that based on the account balances that Mr. Reese shared with us…our proposal on interest paid to the school board was more than double than what Heritage offered,” Rogers said. “It would have given the school board an extra $20,000 a year in income. Then on top of that we have some automated services that would turn some accounting functions from manual to automated so it is going to create some efficiencies. We also offer the school spirit program where basically anybody who opens an account with Ameris can designate a school they want to support in we’ll pay the interest in all of those customers balances in favor of the school.”

The board did in fact vote for Ameris during their January meeting with the one dissenting vote being from Marcus Scott IV.

Scott, who has disagreed with Lee on matters in the past, said he voted no because the committee and Reese recommended Heritage Bank. 

“(I voted no) because the committee Dr. Lee chose to select a bank voted for Heritage Bank and Roger Reese recommended Heritage,” Scott said when asked why he voted no. “There was a perceived conflict of interest with her husband working for the bank… And I felt we rushed the process.”

However Rogers said discussions with Reese and the bank have been ongoing for some time.

“As a matter of fact when we first met with Mr. Reese starting last March, we gave him what our rates were and his comment back to us was, ‘We are going to change to you all,’ to Ameris because we were so much better…Dr. Lee was the one who told him he had to put it out for bids to make sure it was all above board,” Rogers said.

Lee said it was a personnel matter and referred all question to the school district’s attorney.

He issued a statement late Friday denying the allegations.

“The school district strongly denies that the process that it followed with regard to a review of banking services violated board policy or state law,” LCBOE attorney Phillip L. Hartley said. “The review by the Board was conducted in public meetings using a standard process.”

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