Johnston sheriff bought 7 county cars from dealerships with family ties, records show

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Records show Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, who violated local purchasing policy by buying cars without getting written quotes, purchased the cars from auto dealerships led by his daughter’s father-in-law.

An Office of the State Auditor (OSA) report last month found the Sheriff’s Office improperly purchased seven vehicles and 40 gas masks, totaling over $260,000. In each of those purchases, the Sheriff’s Office failed to obtain three written quotes from vendors first, which is required under county policy for all purchases between $7,500 and $89,999.99.

That meant the Sheriff’s Office may have spent more taxpayer money than necessary for the equipment, the audit report said.

Receipts obtained through a public records request from The News & Observer show that all seven vehicles were purchased from Deacon Jones Auto Group, at dealerships led by the father-in-law of Bizzell’s daughter.

His daughter married the son of the president of Deacon Jones Auto Group in March 2021. Social media posts document their relationship at least as far back as March 10, 2020.

Bizzell’s daughter also works at Deacon Jones Auto Group, according to her social media accounts.

When asked whether the OSA had investigated the familial relationship during its audit, a spokesperson said they could not disclose that information.

But experts warn that such relationships can erode trust in the community.

Lee Roberts, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a former North Carolina state budget director, said officials should be wary “not only of the processes and policies in place, but also of public opinion.”

“If you are going to spend taxpayer money at a dealership with which you have a familial relationship, you want to bend over backwards to make sure that the rules are being followed to the letter,” he said in an email. “Many would decide not to patronize their friends and relatives with taxpayer dollars, even if the rules are followed, just to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

While a familial relationship is not a “legal disqualifier,” Roberts said it “heightens the importance of following the procurement rules” to maintain public trust.

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell
Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell

Sheriff acted in ‘good faith,’ county says

Johnston County Attorney Jennifer Slusser said in an email that the county had “received no evidence that (Bizzell) engaged in an impermissible conflict of interest.”

She added that the Board of Commissioners believed he “was acting in good faith seeking to save taxpayer money.”

Bizzell said his office conducted research to find the best price, but he was unable to provide any supporting documentation, according to the OAS report.

He told the state he did not keep documentation because “if I can’t be trusted as the sheriff, who can you trust?” according to the state audit report.

Slusser did not directly address the familial relationship and did not respond when asked if the county had investigated whether it influenced the purchases.

Bizzell and the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.

Deacon Jones Auto Park, where four of the cars were purchased, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.

When asked whether he was concerned by the familial relationship, county board Chairman Butch Lawter said Slusser’s statement “reflected the Board of Commissioners’ position on this matter.”

More oversight, transparency needed, expert says

Bruce McDonald, a professor of public budgeting and finance at N.C. State University, said competitive bidding laws serve two important functions in local government.

“The first is, of course, to save as much money for the government as possible,” he said. “Particularly once you’re outside of a large city, local sources aren’t always the most cost efficient.”

McDonald added that bids help create accountability, especially in smaller communities where family members are more likely to be involved in businesses.

“If it was a competitive process, and it happened to be that the sheriff’s daughter’s father-in-law was the most competitive, then that’s OK to go to him,” he said. “But if it’s not a competitive bid, then it’s a little bit of favoritism that’s being shown towards that business — which becomes an ethical concern.”

McDonald added he was alarmed by Bizzell’s comment on trust in the audit report, noting it is “absolutely” standard to document everything in government purchases.

“A sheriff’s office is used to thinking about the line of evidence,” he said. “We don’t have a court case go up, and the sheriff just says, ‘Well, he did it, just trust me.’ So why is that response expected to be OK?”

Even if a personal relationship did not impact a purchasing decision, McDonald said government agencies should be transparent.

“If it is just coincidental, then you’re needing to explain that it is coincidental — providing more justification, more explanation, and being open about it when questioned to help ease those concerns along the way,” he said. “There’s a level of trust between the government and the community that’s necessary, particularly when it comes to law enforcement.”

McDonald added that the violations point to more oversight being required from the county, especially when purchases involve personal relationships. The county should also address community concerns in a public forum, where residents can ask questions, he added.

“It’s uncomfortable for the sheriff and the commission,” McDonald said. “But that’s the old adage of politics — whenever something comes up, the more open and upfront you are about it from the start, the better able you are to ease those concerns and keep moving forward.”

Sheriff’s statements may ‘mislead,’ OSA says

The seven vehicles listed in the audit are:

  • A 2019 Chevrolet Tahoe purchased on Feb. 8, 2019 for $48,200

  • A 2018 Ford Taurus purchased on June 11, 2019 for $25,500

  • A 2018 Ford Taurus purchased on Dec. 6, 2019 for $21,500

  • A 2020 Ford F-250 purchased on Jan. 2, 2020 for $37,949

  • A 2020 Chevrolet Tahoes purchased on April 14, 2020 for $38,300

  • A 2020 Chevrolet Tahoes purchased on April 14, 2020 for $38,800

  • A 2020 Chevrolet Tahoes purchased on April 14, 2020 for $39,800

In his response to the OSA, Bizzell said the gas masks and three of the vehicles were purchased as “emergency purchases,” citing civil unrest and pandemic conditions.

But the audit report claims the Sheriff’s Office made statements “that may obscure the issue, mislead the reader, and minimize the importance of OSA’s finding and recommendations.”

The OSA noted the gas masks were purchased in January 2019 and that the Sheriff’s Office could not point to any civil unrest that occurred that year.

The Sheriff’s Office said because of “pandemic conditions and supply shortages ... law enforcement agencies began to experience an inability to receive responsive bids.” But the Sheriff’s Office provided no documentation that they contacted other dealerships for written quotes, nor were they able to demonstrate “substantial, immediate need” for the vehicles, according to the report.

Four of the vehicles were purchased before the pandemic reached the United States, while another three were bought just a month after the virus had been detected in North Carolina.

The OSA concluded that the Board of Commissioners should enforce the purchasing policy and that the Sheriff’s Office should follow it.

Both agreed to adhere to the findings.

Reporter Tyler Dukes contributed to this report.

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