In response to what they claim to be defamatory statements from some Walton County residents, owners of JB Athletics, Jody Johnson and Brad Huff, have threatened legal action over accusations related to the Walton County Parks and Recreation Ball Fields. This follows calls for an independent investigation into potential conflicts with JB Athletics leasing the fields from Walton County to run travel ball tournaments. Johnson and Huff are both also employees of the County. Johnson is the director of Parks and Recreation and Huff is manager of the Athletics Division.
County computers used by Huff and Johnson were seized by the Walton County Sheriff’s Office on July 15 and reportedly will be turned over to the FBI or GBI to see if there is any wrongdoing. Huff and Johnson have hired an attorney to represent them and claim they have done nothing illegal, a fact they say has already been ratified by Walton County in previous investigations into this matter.
In a letter from attorney Andre T. Tennille III out of the offices of Atlanta attorney Ken Hodges, those calling for the investigation have been put on notice that they need to preserve any evidence in this matter and to “stop defaming them immediately and retract your defamatory statements within five days.” The letters were sent to Walton County Commissioner Lee Bradford, Walton County employee James Robertson and Walton County residents Matt Perkins and Crystal Carter.
Carter said she has done nothing wrong and considers the letter intimidation against what she says are simply requests for an independent investigation.
“I just want there to be a fair and unbiased investigation,” Carter said. She said she will not be intimated by threats of legal action. “I have not done anything wrong. Anything I have asked them to look into I have evidence of.”
But attorneys Hodges and Tennille dispute the evidence, drawing attention to the time stamp on two photographs that show trash spread out on the field, which they claim prove that the perception of fields left in a mess were staged. Hodges said all three sets of photographs turned into the WCBOC were obtained by Johnson and Huff through an Open Records Request.
“All of the 186 pictures turned in by Jim Robertson, Commissioner Bradford and Crystal Carter can be disputed,” Hodges said.
Calls for an investigation have come up previously over the 10 years since Johnson and Huff started the company and began leasing the fields, but internal investigations have never found any conflict or wrongdoing. Hodges said Huff and Johnson have committed no crimes.
“JB Athletics, Jody, and Brad have been openly and transparently conducting their business with the full knowledge of the Walton County Commission for many years and have committed no crimes,” Hodges said. “To the contrary, their business has brought many visitors to Walton County that otherwise would not have come. They have engaged in and complied with contracts for use of the athletic fields that are open to any members of the public to do the same.”
Hodges said that although the lease agreement between JB Athletics and the County does not specify which entity is responsible for the preparation before or cleanup afterwards of the fields, any other entity leasing the fields would get the same considerations.
“The official lease agreement between the (Walton County Board Of Commissioners) and JBA does not specify fields are to be set up before an event. All renters that engage in the WCBOC rental agreement have their facility prepared by Walton County employees prior to receiving the facility they are paying for. Rental of the community rooms and passive park pavilions are cleaned and set up for the renter prior to their arrival to the event site just like the ball fields that are rented by JBA. JBA does not rent any facilities in Georgia that do not provide set up,” Hodges said. “Rockdale, Newton, Henry, Butts, Barrow, Jackson, Forsyth and Hall counties are a few of the counties that JBA’s works with and the facilities are prepared prior to JBA’s arrival by their county employees. Walton County employees have been preparing event sites prior to renters receiving facilities since the original WCBOC agreement was voted on in 2005.”
Hodges said the rental agreement does not state that all lights and water will be turned off and debris will be disposed of, etc. before leaving.
“The WCBOC agreement provides a county employee at the rate of $18 per hour to make sure these requirements are met,” Hodges said. “Walton County is responsible for providing staff to clean bathrooms, pick up trash, chalk batter’s boxes/foul lines and drag fields when these employees are available.”
The calls for an independent investigation came up again after softball coach Matthew Perkins raised the issue at the June WCBOC over girls softball teams being left out of the action over weekend games played at Walton County ball fields.
“Walton County resident Matt Perkins seems to be fixated on the fact that no softball tournaments are played at Walton County parks. The two baseball/softball complexes predominately utilized for rentals in Walton County have a limited number of dirt infields which are most commonly used for fast pitch softball tournaments,” Hodges said. “Criswell Park has two dirt infields and South Walton Park has two dirt infields. It would be very difficult for a successful fast pitch tournament director to profit with the use of two fields. A fast pitch softball tournament director would have to tie up both parks in order to be successful on all four dirt fields. If Matt Perkins looked at this from the perspective of a tournament director he would see this. JBA cannot play on two fields each weekend and be successful. Fast pitch softball tournaments are played in Rockdale, Barrow, Newton, Gwinnett and Oconee counties, all counties that border Walton County. The ball fields in these counties are majority dirt infields which fast pitch directors need to be profitable. Walton County’s facilities are community parks including baseball and softball fields at the same facility. Surrounding counties that offer softball tournaments have standalone softball complexes that include multiple softball fields.”
When the matter came up again in the July meeting, the WCBOC voted, following an executive session, to suspend JB Athletics’ use of the ballfields until the County policy could be reviewed. At the time, however, WCBOC Chairman Kevin Little said no investigation was commissioned.
“There was no motion about anything to do with an investigation. The board suspended all tournaments until our policies could be revamped and no County employee can do a tournament,” Little said. “There was no mention by the Board of Commissioners of any sort or any kind of investigation.”
Chapman, however, said he was requested by the Board of Commissioners, as was Walton County District Attorney Layla Zon, to look into the issue. He said he was turning over the evidence to the FBI or GBI to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
” I’m not going to do anything other than turn everything over to the FBI or GBI. I can’t speak for the district attorney, but if I were her I would let the FBI or GBI handle it,” Chapman said at the time.
Perkins told a local television channel that the county was losing money as a result of the ball fields being rented out to JB Athletics, but Hodges said the contrary is in fact true.
“Approximately 800 teams per year come to Walton County for one purpose, to participate in baseball events – 800 teams equal approximately 40,000 tourists coming into or moving about in Walton County,” Hodges said. “It is very hard to determine the exact impact these two day events on weekends create. There are several websites that suggest that there are lots of variables to the impact, distance traveled, hotels, proximity to shopping and convenience stores, etc. I would estimate the impact to over a million dollars spent in Walton County on just restaurants, gas, and other miscellaneous items.”
Hodges said the lack of hotels and shopping diminishes the true impact as the surrounding counties receive that benefit. This is something that some of the cities have been working at trying to rectify and the visiting travel ball teams has been used as an incentive to attract hotel chains to take a look at Walton County to set up business. Carter, however, said it is not travel ball that she is against, she just wants an independent investigation to ensure that there is no conflict that is detrimental to county taxpayers.
“If there is no wrongdoing, I hope that is verified and if there is wrongdoing I hope it comes out and some form of restitution is paid. I just want there to be a fair and unbiased investigation,” Carter said.
Tennille’s letter dated July 19 on behalf of Johnson and Huff notes that if statements are not retracted, “within five days,” a lawsuit will be filed claiming real and punitive damages for defamation. The letter requests that they preserve all evidence, including “photos, videos, email, social media posts, texts messages and so on.”