ALBANY DAWSON, Ga. — An ongoing political/business feud involving former friends and allies at the highest levels of local government here has erupted into a war of words that has leaders in this small community accusing each other of gross criminal misconduct.
On one side of the skirmish are businessman Dost Mohammad and Dawson City Manager Barney Parnacott; on the other Ward 4 City Councilman John Harris, who has allied himself with new Dawson Mayor Chris Wright and Terrell County Sheriff John Bowens. Charges leveled by the two groups range from theft to abuse of power to sexual misconduct. Caught in the middle are citizens not quite certain which charges — and which officials — to believe.
Mohammad, a Pakistani native who came to America in 1987 and now owns the Paradise Point clothing store, SOWEGA Rentals and a number of rental properties in the community, contacted The Herald after reading a recent article about the financial troubles of Albany City Commissioner Christopher Pike. Mohammad said a Dawson City Council member, subsequently identified as Harris, had written him a $25,000 check in 2005 that had been returned for insufficient funds.
The businessman said he's been trying to collect the money since.
"I didn't know where else to turn," Mohammad said. "I've appealed to the close friendship I had with John Harris; I've been to law enforcement, and I've been through the courts. But here it is seven years later, and I still have this bad check."
Mohammad said the check was returned after he gave Harris a check for $25,000 so that the council member could buy a tractor-trailer rig, which Harris had said he intended to sell to a business in Ocilla at a profit.
"He asked me to hold the check that he wrote me (in the same amount) for a week, until after he'd completed the sale, and then I could cash it," Mohammad said. "When I tried to cash it, it was returned for insufficient funds. I've been trying to get the money since."
When subsequent efforts to collect the money failed, Mohammad hired Albany attorney Jerry Brimberry, who sought and received a writ of fieri facias (a FiFa lien) in Terrell County Superior Court. A FiFa is recorded by a county's Superior Court clerk after a judgment is made against a party, and the lien can be used to seize personal assets.
Mohammad, however, said efforts to obtain assets from Harris, including a wage garnishment request, had been unsuccessful.
The city councilman, meanwhile, said he'd never involved Mohammad in a tractor-trailer purchase, and that the returned check is associated with a Humvee purchased in Mohammad's name that Harris was paying for.
"I paid $7,000 or $8,000 down on the Hummer, and Dost made the purchase in his name," Harris said. "I then made the monthly payments. I'd had the vehicle for 2 1/2-3 years when we became at odds over some issues. He had the Hummer picked up, and even though I hadn't missed a payment, he later sold it and didn't give me any of the money.
"Dost also owed me for a number of garments we made at a sewing plant I owned, so frankly I felt like I didn't owe him any money. In fact, when you take everything into account from our business dealings, he actually owed me money. So I just forgot about (the check)."
Harris said he's certain Mohammad contacted The Herald about the check and other issues (including claims that he violated his oath of office by signing an affidavit saying he did not owe tax money and threatening Mohammad) because Harris had defeated Jodi Jacobs, one of Mohammad's employees, in the recent City Council election. Harris said Parnacott and former Mayor Robert Albritten were behind Jacobs' unsuccessful attempts to unseat him.
"The former mayor (Albritten) had brought Parnacott on as city manager because (Albritten) could get him to do whatever he wanted," Harris said. "Mayor Albritten did a lot of good things for the city of Dawson in his early years as mayor, but at some point everything he and (Parnacott) did was done to benefit them.
"They poured all this money into trying to get (Jacobs) elected, but I won overwhelmingly. So now they're trying to discredit me."
Jacobs, meanwhile, denied that she'd been set up by Albritten, Parnacott and Mohammad to run against Harris.
"I didn't run against anybody; I ran for office," she said. "My sole intention in running for the City Council was to try and make Dawson a better place."
Parnacott said Harris has used his relationship with Bowens to legally qualify to run for office despite 12 active FiFas listed against Harris in Terrell Superior Court, including claims by Mohammad, Terrell County, the Georgia Department of Labor, the Georgia Department of Revenue, Southern Tire Co., Lees Vet and Heavy Duty Distribution.
"Each time he's run for office, Mr. Harris has signed an affidavit saying he does not owe taxes," the Dawson city manager said. "The way the law's been interpreted here is that a person must either pay his taxes or make a payment arrangement at the county level to pay them (to qualify). Mr. Harris has used his association with the sheriff to claim he's made a payment arrangement."
Bowens, who said no warrant taken out against Harris had ever come across his desk, confirmed that Harris had made arrangements to pay back taxes owed the county.
"I'm treating Mr. Harris the way I would any citizen of the county," Bowens said. "He came and set up a plan to pay his back taxes, and he's been paying on them right regular."
Dawson City Attorney Tommy Coleman, acknowledging that there is "bad blood" between the officials, said Harris cannot be denied the right to run for office because of the tax issue.
"There was an attempt in the state Legislature to disqualify any candidate who owed taxes, but when they realized that they'd be disqualifying a lot of officials in the state and in the Legislature, they watered it down so that there must be a final adjudication of a tax issue before anyone is disqualified," Coleman said.
Parnacott also said that Harris had obtained a significant SBA loan (reportedly around $630,000) for a sewing factory located in the city, but shortly after the business failed and officials asked for documentation showing where the funding had gone, the building and all associated documents were destroyed in a fire.
Harris said Parnacott's account is accurate.
"I started work at a sewing plant here while I was attending Albany State University, but I soon found that this business was my niche," Harris said. "I worked my way up to third in command of the business, and when (officials') efforts to turn it into a co-op did not work, I purchased the plant. We were employing about 200 people at the time.
"I called the business Harber Apparel, and things went well for two or three years. But when NAFTA passed, we soon were in a position where we were chasing our payroll. Sanford Bishop helped us get an SBA loan — and frankly, I thought it was going to be a grant — but when a California business pulled out of a big order we had with them, it ended up costing us more than $300,000. That shut us down."
Harris acknowledges that the factory building and its records did burn, but he says there's an element of the story that Parnacott and others leave out.
"What they don't tell you is that I personally put up my family home on that loan, and when the business failed and the factory burned, I lost my home and everything else I own," Harris said. "I was basically wiped out."
Harris said he's surprised that Parnacott and Mohammad would cast stones at him. He said the city manager has been involved in scandal involving tenant payments of property he owns, has had to answer to illegal construction dumping charges, has used his position to influence the awarding of jobs in the city and has been arrested for purchasing stolen heavy equipment.
Harris also called Parnacott and Mohammad "the biggest slumlords in the city of Dawson."
Coleman acknowledged that the GBI had investigated the tenant charges against Parnacott but found no evidence of wrongdoing, and that while the city manager was brought to trial in Lee County on the stolen goods charge, it too had been dismissed.
"All of the things I'm telling you (about Parnacott, Albritten and Mohammmad) are on file; these are things that have been verified," Harris said. "There are plenty of other things, things that would blow your mind, but there haven't been any formal charges yet, so I'm not going to bring them up.
"Look, I've lived in Dawson all of my 51 years, and I know and interact with at least 80 percent of the people who live here. People know I shoot straight. I'm not an angel. I have a failed marriage, and after having surgery, getting in a wreck and getting dental work a few years ago, I became addicted to pain pills. I'm ashamed that that happened, but I'm not ashamed to say that I was addicted. I'm actually proud that I went through rehab and overcame it. I've made mistakes, but I'm not a bad person."
Mohammad said that even though he and Harris were once close friends, he now feels his trust was misguided.
"We both went through some bad times, and I really thought John was someone I could trust," Mohammad said. "But he took advantage of my kindness. And when I tried to collect the money he owed me, he told me 'I can put a bullet in your head.' I do believe he is a threat, but I'm not scared of him.
"I just feel no one will help me. It was always a dream to come to this country because of the unlimited possibilities. But now I find law enforcement here is not willing to help me. A person who is that crooked should not be allowed to serve in government. He should be behind bars."
Harris says the ouster of Albritten, who served as Dawson mayor for 32 years, is proof that the citizens of the community are tiring of the status quo. He said a petition ("which already has 300 to 400 signatures") is circulating in the city calling for Parnacott's ouster.
"They're fixing to picket City Hall," Harris said.
Citizens in Dawson privately worry that the war of words, the claims and counter claims, between some of their city's most high-profile leaders is further damaging efforts to improve the poverty-ridden community. One offered an opinion that echoes concerns of many:
"How are we ever going to turn things around when the folks who are supposed to be helping us are so busy looking out for their own good and trying to get themselves out of their own messes?"