As credit card probe continues, Rockwood public works chief quits

ROCKWOOD — He bought 13 weapons for $6,131.98 using the city’s credit card — including an assault rifle, shotguns and pistols — and registered them in his name, according to city records.

Longtime Rockwood Public Works Director Tom Pierce also used the city’s credit card to charge more than $6,678 in ammo, holsters and other firearms accessories and also put those items in his name, officials said.

As part of ongoing investigations by state auditors and the local district attorney general’s office, allegations that Pierce used the city’s credit card to charge $3,495 in unauthorized correspondence classes are also under scrutiny.

“From what I picked up on, it’s misappropriation of funds and probably fraud,” Rockwood Vice Mayor Peggy Evans said Tuesday.

Other charges Pierce put on the city’s credit card in 2010 and 2011 are also under scrutiny, and city records obtained Tuesday by the News Sentinel indicate officials remain uncertain of their legitimacy.

The incidents have sparked changes in the way the city uses its credit cards, City Administrator Jack E. Miller said. “We’ve de facto cut out credit card purchases,” he said.

The city’s three remaining credit cards are now in the jurisdiction of City Recorder Becky Ruppe and are only to be used “for emergency purchases,” Miller said.

As city officials sort through credit card purchases by Pierce, many of them “fall short of our ability to understand,” Mayor James Watts wrote in a letter to Pierce and Pierce’s attorney, John McFarland.

Some buys, especially the guns, “simply create an enormous liability and make no sense,” Watts wrote.

Watts in the letter said some buys were for Pierce’s “personal use and benefit,” making him “guilty of gross misconduct.”

Watts on Monday night was prepared to recommend to City Council that Pierce, who had been put on unpaid administrative leave from his $57,000-a-year job since Feb. 17, be fired.

But minutes before the meeting, McFarland submitted Pierce’s resignation, Watts said.

The mayor said Pierce had been with the city for 26 years and had been the city’s public works director, lately supervising 19 employees, for about 15 years.

“This is so out of character,” Evans said of Pierce, whom she described as “a great guy” willing to go out of his way to help others. “I really don’t understand how it happened or why it happened,” she said.

Evans speculated that another city employee might have been involved in online purchases that Pierce allegedly made.

“He was paying online through our bank account, and I don’t know how he got the code to that account. Someone had to have given him that code,” she said.

When auditors in early February first began questioning Pierce’s credit card purchases, Pierce told city officials he had purchased “two or three” weapons to use in his work in animal control, “primarily dealing with vicious animals.”

Pierce also told officials he had purchased the correspondence courses “for the purpose of his getting knowledge to do a better job,” and a former mayor had authorized that purchase.

McFarland on Tuesday had no comment and said he had told his client not to talk to anyone about the allegations.