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 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 was to a Sunday Courier story about a potential lawsuit against LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee by Reese and his attorney.
Billips’ Jan. 18 letter claims Lee violated 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 of Ameris Bank.
Billips is seeking Reese’s reinstatement and more than $33,000 in back pay, claiming Reese has been underpaid.
The letter claims both Reese and the committee recommended Heritage Bank, which at the time was the district’s bank, be awarded the contract. Billips’ letter alleges Lee tried to get Reese to change his recommendation to Ameris, where her husband is a mortgage loan officer.
Billips also alleges Lee continued to insist that Reese reach out to Ameris Bank to request a revised proposal, in violation of state law and board policy, and 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 who works with us, Mr. Reese, Janine Graham (LCSS assistant director of finance) and Chris Ellison from the Heri
tage Bank," Rogers said. "They were opened and recorded that only two bids were sent in … Ameris and Heritage."
Rogers said Reese set up the meeting.
Rogers said Reese, upon opening the bids, made copies that were later provided to the board, Lee and the financial services committee.
Rogers said the proposals from Ameris and Heritage Bank were presented to the board during a retreat meeting on Dec. 13.
"The exact same proposal," Rogers said.
"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."
Billips said 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."
Rogers said that is not accurate.
"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 legitimately. Rogers said the board likely chose Ameris because of the services it 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 and we’ll pay the interest in all of those customers balances in favor of the school."
Only one board member, Marcus Scott, IV, vote against hiring Ameris in January.
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. "There was a perceived conflict of interest with her husband working for the bank… And I felt we rushed the process."
However Rogers said Reese and bank officials had discussed services 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 has referred all inquiries into the matter to the school district’s attorney. He issued a statement 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."
Billips’ other argument dealt with what happened to Reese after he talked to the school board chairwoman.
"The most problematic thing here is that the fact that once these issues were exposed the superintendent’s reaction was to terminate the whistleblower and this is not a first time occurrence," Billips said, claiming Reese was first placed on administrative leave, then told he would not get a contract for the next school year.
Hartley’s response to the issue regarding Reese was, "As far as any personnel matter, it is not the practice of the District to discuss personnel matters publicly unless and until the board of education is required to take action in order to protect any confidentiality rights of employees."
Billips’ letter demands Reese be reinstated and for Lee to stop threatening his employment, while also paying him back pay, or else they will go to court.
This is not the first time Billips has issued a suit against Lee. He represented a client in a similar law suit against Lee and the Clayton County School District in 2009.
The Courier will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.