Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant was placed on paid administrative leave on Tuesday after District Attorney Bert Poston said a Whitfield County grand jury will hear evidence from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on May 30 concerning Grant's providing a county-owned, encrypted radio to a Dalton wrecker service.
Mayor Tom Dickson said Grant is on leave pending a decision by the grand jury. Lt. Greg Fowler will serve as interim chief.
The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office referred the matter to the GBI in March after Grant gave the radio to Bob Cummings, owner of Bob’s Wrecker Service in Dalton. The sheriff's office said in a statement at the time, "It was determined shortly after starting the investigation that criminal charges could arise from this incident, therefore the case was turned over to the GBI to investigate.”
Dickson said the decision by Poston to move forward with the case convinced him to place Grant on leave.
“Until the district attorney actually had done something, there had been nothing to say Chief Grant had done something wrong,” Dickson said. “I think what he did was probably not the right thing to do, but did it go to the level of being criminal? The sheriff’s office had made some allegations, but allegations are not charges. The District Attorney’s Office saying they would present this indictment gives it a little more weight. Pending the outcome of that, we will decide what to do moving forward.”
Dickson said he spoke with Grant after a reporter contacted him about the decision by Poston.
“After you let me know what was going on, I got in touch with Chief Grant,” Dickson said. “We met and talked and I made the announcement to him on what we were going to do.”
On Tuesday, Grant returned a phone call from a reporter and when the reporter identified himself, Grant said, “Oh, never mind” and hung up.
In March, Grant said he didn’t intend to break any laws or violate any policies. He told a reporter that Bob’s is the only towing service that applied to be on Varnell’s rotation this year to be called when wrecks occur.
"When we would have an accident, he would be alerted to it a little bit quicker (with the radio)," Grant said. "He would hear when we have a wreck here in Varnell and dispatch a wrecker here a little bit quicker."
“I only intended to benefit the city of Varnell," Grant said.
The case summary in a sheriff's office incident report mentions the possibility of reckless conduct “due to Chief Grant providing an encrypted police radio to a private citizen and his employees to use and disregarding the potential safety risks to law enforcement officers engaged in undercover/sting/narcotics operations."
The case summary discusses theft by conversion “due to Chief Grant converting Whitfield County-owned property to private use when he knowingly and willfully gave/loaned the radio to Robert Cummings to use in his private business.”
City Council member David Owens said he believes Grant should have been placed on leave when the investigation first came to light.
“A lot of people don’t understand the seriousness of the charges, and he was still allowed to be the chief law enforcement officer of the city,” Owens said. “I think he should be on leave until there is a conclusion. If he is charged with this by the grand jury, I think the mayor and council will have to take a harder look at his employment status.”
The GBI sent its report to the District Attorney’s Office in early April. In a press release from Poston on Tuesday, he said his office will have "no further comment" until the grand jury has reviewed the evidence.
“The Whitfield County grand jury will hear evidence from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation at their regularly scheduled meeting on May 30, 2019, concerning the alleged transfer of a Whitfield County radio from Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant to Bob Cummings of Bob’s Wrecker Service,” Poston wrote. “Pursuant to Georgia law, Chief Grant has been notified that the case will be presented to the grand jury. Until such time as the grand jury has reviewed the evidence developed during the investigation, the District Attorney’s Office will have no further comment. This remains a pending case subject to the confidentiality requirements of Georgia law and the rules of the State Bar of Georgia.”
Owens voted in 2017 with two former council members to disband the police department after Grant’s handling of a domestic dispute at a former council member’s home.
“Honestly, I thought putting him on administrative leave with pay until it was resolved was the right decision from the beginning,” Owens said. “I think that would have been a much better reflection on the city. There has been no accountability set by anyone yet. I am glad it is processing through the District Attorney’s Office. Until it is brought to a conclusion one way or another, it is something hanging over the city.”
The next scheduled meeting of the council is May 21. Messages left for council members Ashlee Godfrey and Bob Roche were not immediately returned Tuesday evening.