NEWTON COUNTY, Ga. -- Millions of tax dollars, thousands of acres of land and family dreams lost – all for a project going nowhere. As the 11Alive's yearlong investigation into a county attorney continues, outrage continues in Newton County.
In February, the 11Alive Investigators uncovered that Tommy Craig was billing the county over a million dollars a year in legal costs. A large part of his earnings come from a county reservoir project he's been leading for over 15 years.
As 11Alive Investigator Catie Beck reports, the recently-shelved project has cost citizens more than tax money.
There's no price tag for the emotional cost of what's happened here. For many of the 80 families forced to sell land for the reservoir, the pain of a stolen dream is simply immeasurable.
"We were going to live in the middle and have both of our children on either side and our grandchildren -- it was just going to be our own little community," Rita McBride said.
The McBride family is one of more than 80 who had to surrender their land under eminent domain to the Bear Creek Reservoir project. The project was led by Newton County attorney Tommy Craig.
"They've thrown people off their property, people who had lived there and had no place else to go -- out," McBride said.
Many found themselves up a creek and had to give in. Some, like the McBrides, fought and were paid fair market value for the land with a buyback clause if the reservoir fell through. Only now, years later, the land is worth so much that McBride can't afford to buy it back.
"He's very powerful and he's a bully," Rita McBride said of Craig. "He is a true bully."
Craig didn't need or even try to get McBride's approval. All he needed was the support of the county board. Commissioners, many no longer serving, gave Craig authority to seize the land, and the power to condemn it by passing resolutions such as one condemning McBride's land.
"You condemned my land so that something can be done for the public good 15 years ago. Nothing has been done," McBride said.
In all, 4,000 acres of land was acquired. In more than 15 years, nothing has been built.
"I see that land every time I go in or out of here, I think we could be living there with our daughters," McBride said.
The project can't break ground without a permit. The permitting body, the Army Corps of Engineers, has continually found flaws in Craig's plans. In August, they brought the permitting process to a screeching halt. They withdrew the county's application stating, among other things, that Craig had not shown population estimates to show need for a reservoir.
"We pay this man millions and millions of dollars over the years and we have nothing to show for it," said Sarah Todd.
Citizens have been questioning the process, Craig's county paychecks and the reservoir project for years.
Records show that Craig makes millions of dollars -- tax dollars from counties across the state. While he did obtain permits on some, several area counties spent a million dollars before ultimately releasing him from their project. Many to this day are still awaiting a permit. Yet some Newton County commissioners believe waiting is still the key, and a permit and reservoir will come.
"I personally think it's good for the county, I think anything worth having you have to work for it," said Newton County Commissioner J.C. Henderson.
Craig wouldn't talk to 11Alive about his earnings, and he declined to speak to the Investigators about the reservoir project.
At a board retreat in Covington, with an hour still left in the meeting, Craig noticed the Investigators and attempted to leave. The Investigators watched as board member Levie Maddox took Craig's keys and moved Craig's blue Tahoe behind the building for a backdoor exit.
Craig left his car and got picked up. Maddox never did answer why he was moving a car owned by Craig. But it's clear, neither wanted to comment on it - or the halted reservoir project.
Fifteen years later, it's hardly water under the bridge for Rita McBride and many of her neighbors.
"Whatever they're dreams were, they all had dreams for that property," McBride said. "He took my dream, he took our dream, he took my children's dream."
In October, the board voted to stop all spending on the reservoir project. Now, thanks partly to reservoir expenses and Craig's billable hours on it, the county is $35 million in debt.
Meanwhile, Craig billed the county for more than $92,000 in the month of September alone.
Previous stories on Tommy Craig:
- Lawyer making millions on taxpayers is behind on taxes
- Small county attorney on track to make more than $1M
- Residents sound off about county lawyer making millions