Port Wentworth council member files ethics complaint against another council member

Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 10:26 PM EDT
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PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (WTOC) - A Port Wentworth council member’s ethics is being called into question.

WTOC Investigates obtained several claims of ethics violations filed against Councilwoman Jo Smith.

Councilmember Rufus Bright filed it - cosigned by two other council members Thomas Barbee and Mark Stephens.

Out-of-city residency. That’s just one of the ethics violations Councilmember Rufus Bright filed with the city claiming Councilwoman Jo Smith does not live in Port Wentworth.

“Her residency is under Joann Ellen Smith and that’s in Cobb County,” said Councilmember Bright.

So we went to the address listed on her application for candidacy...no answer.

We did find a brochure in the door with her name on it.

According to records from the Cobb County Board of Tax Assessors, under that name, she’s owned a home in Marietta, Ga since 2013.

“This city has been through a lot. The only way we can get this city back on track is they gotta trust us. How you gon’ trust me if I’m lying and stealing from you?” said Councilmember Bright.

But the ethics complaints do not stop there. Councilman Bright says Councilwoman Jo Smith was “abusing her Port Wentworth credit card.”

In other words, Bright is claiming she stole from the city.

A bank statement from the city shows Councilwoman Smith paid almost $1,500 to an organization called the Foundation Center. She claimed she needed to buy a database of grants to help residents who needed help with their nonprofits.

Two months later, she asked the organization to cancel her membership and give her a pro-rated refund because she “bit off more than she could chew.”

That’s not all. Councilman Bright says Smith threatened city staff when they would not approve a contract that would benefit her sister’s company.

“One word...hostile.”

According to Bright, she texted a city official, “when someone screws me, I’m the fiercest enemy one would ever encounter.”

Council unanimously rejected a grant-writing contract in May that would give a company called GFAAC 15% of any funds for grants they acquire for the city.

The spokesperson for the business, Stephanie Hensley, Smith’s sister chaired her campaign and contributed $2,800, according to a campaign disclosure report.

Councilwoman Smith recused herself from discussion and vote.

The mayor said on record, “family members should not be writing grants for the city.”

Hensley did not deny the relation.

“I would caution saying I know Jo Smith. I’m related to Jo Smith. I don’t think that’s a reason to disqualify what I can do,” said Hensley.

City code says no elected official should engage in any business or transaction or have a direct or indirect financial interest that could conflict with completing official duties.

Councilman Bright says his issue with all of this is it all falls back to ethics.

“You’re defrauding the government. And when you cheat...my mom always said, ‘if you cheat you’ll lie, if you lie you’ll steal, if you steal you’ll kill.’”

But why now? Smith is a year into her first term as a councilmember.

“At first, she act like she wanted everything to be united but when you’re doing things outside of bringing the city together, it makes the city look bad.”

He says this is not what Port Wentworth stands for. They are working to make this a better city than it’s been in the past but ultimately the decision on whether or not any of these allegations have enough evidence will lie with a municipal court judge.

“I want it to be rectified. That’s my hope and my prayer that it’ll be rectified because the people of Port Wentworth need better than that,” said Councilmember Bright.

WTOC did speak to her lawyer, who said in part:

“We are aware of the ethics complaint that has been lodged against her. These allegations are completely baseless and untrue.”

If the Port Wentworth Municipal Court judge does not dismiss the complaint, the court will hold a hearing.

The court can compel testimony, from city staff, or use taxpayer dollars to hire outside investigators.

If the court determines there’s enough facts to proceed, they will have a hearing within 60 days.

When the judge makes a decision, the mayor and city council may place the final decision upon the agenda to consider any penalties which could include public reprimand, censure, or a request to resign.

Councilwoman Smith has responded to the ethics complaint: