MADISON COUNTY, Ala. — An unusual series of events involving tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money has been raised as a campaign issue late in the Madison County Commission District 3 Republican Primary election.
The money was transferred from a number of government bank accounts to a private business and eventually returned to the original account.
Madison County Commission candidate Eddie Sisk and incumbent District 3 Commissioner Craig Hill have a history. It’s a rematch from 2016 when Hill beat then-Commissioner Sisk. The primary vote is Tuesday.
“Here’s the thing. If somebody is going to be in office they need to be held accountable,” said Sisk. “I was held accountable for four years that I was in office and anybody that is in office needs to be held accountable.”
“Because it’s campaign season, my opponent has pushed to dig into something that he feels, for some reason, the commission was on the wrong side of,” said Hill.
Sisk says he was tipped off that something odd was going on with $60,000 given to the Town of Gurley by Commissioner Craig Hill.
“So I started searching records and found this,” said Sisk.
Those public records, provided to WHNT News 19 by Sisk, show that Hill gave the Town of Gurley $60,000 from his District 3 budget with the intent it would help with the construction of a private sports complex — Rock Creek Sports.
“A commissioner can give a town or a city that is in his district or anywhere money,” said Sisk. “The problem is you cannot tell the town how to spend that money.”
Hill says he didn’t do anything wrong.
It was a project Hill brought to the county commission back in 2018. He proposed using $134,000 of county money to help fund initial work at the sports complex site, including using county equipment and workers.
The commission directed Hill to study how the complex would improve the economy in Madison County.
At the time, Commission Chairman Dale Strong raised concerns about the pubic funds going to a private business.
“We’re open to new ideas, but I think there’s gonna be a lot more definitive information needed before this commission can make a vote,” said Strong.
Hill told WHNT News 19 on Wednesday he didn’t complete the study because Gurley annexed the property and it was no longer part of unincorporated Madison County.
Hill confirms that in September 2019, his office gave the Town of Gurley $60,000 in hopes that it would go towards the sports complex.
“So at that point, the Town of Gurley received a check for an amount that we agreed on to do rough grade work to get the project started,” Hill said. “Because we felt like the taxpayer’s funds if we could bring this project to our area to the Town of Gurley that the citizens would benefit, the children would benefit, it would be a win-win for everyone.”
Hill says the developer pitched the project to him a few years ago, but he told WHNT News 19 he doesn’t have a personal relationship with him.
Hill said he wanted the money to be used for grading of the property, but he also pointed out, once the money is disbursed, it’s up to Gurley how to spend it.
“Of course, once it goes to the Town of Gurley, it’s their discretion,” Hill said. “We don’t have any oversight anymore. We in good faith, in good faith, expect those funds to be used that way.”
This is where things get more complicated.
Gurley leaders gave two $20,000 checks directly to the owner of Rock Creek Sports, Kevin Evers.
When WHNT News 19 asked Gurley Town Administrator Gary Kern about it, he said it was a deal between Gurley’s mayor and Commissioner Hill. He said he couldn’t comment further because it was a legal matter.
An attorney for Gurley says certain procedures — like a vote to establish how the money would be used for economic development — weren’t followed by the town officials.
Gurley officials apparently called the private developer and he refunded $40,000 to Gurley this month.
Hill then wrote a letter to Gurley officials telling them he gave them the money with the intent to support the construction of the sports complex. At the end of the letter, Hill urges Gurley to keep the money and use it for a youth sports facility at the suggested site or elsewhere, in accordance with the law.
But on Wednesday, Attorney Woody Sanderson told WHNT News 19 all $60,000 was returned by Gurley to Hill’s District 3 commission office bank account.
Hill says he believes this story is politically motivated.
“But we have followed precedents that have been set, historically it had been done, he did it when he was in office,” Hill said.
Sisk says he never gave public money to a city or town instructing officials to pay for a private project.
“And that’s what’s wrong right now in the public, is things get slipped through because the public is too busy doing their own thing to watch and see how the county is spending their money,” Sisk said.
Kevin Evers declined to comment on the matter adding it was political.
Attorneys for the Town of Gurley say it is possible that this project will come up in the future.