Ag officials resign over drunken ‘fraternity party’

Two top officials with the state Department of Agriculture have resigned after a former employee complained the pair led a drunken “fraternity party” during an agency training session that ended in co-ed skinny dipping at a South Georgia resort, the AJC has learned.

Chief Operating Officer Billy Skaggs and Oscar Garrison, the director of the food safety division, stepped down after a preliminary investigation found their behavior could discredit the department.

According to documents The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained, dozens of agency employees attended a training seminar at the Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club near Cordele in September. On the night of Sept. 17, several employees attended an after-hours gathering at a cabin shared by Skaggs, Garrison and Trey Joyner, another department employee.

“There was heavy consumption of alcohol, music and dancing and the environment became similar to that of a college fraternity party,” the investigative report says.

One male employee told investigators that a female at the party “flashed” him by “pulling up her shirt.” After several hours of “socializing, dancing and alcohol consumption,” most people left. A group of seven men and one woman stayed and went swimming in the resort’s lake. “The employees were in various stages of undress while in the lake,” the report says.

Several employees told investigators the female employee took her top off, although “nothing sexual took place,” one employee said.

State taxpayers spent more than $32,000 on the training seminar, although the report says no taxpayer funds were used to purchase alcohol. Sometime during the night, a state vehicle assigned to Skaggs was damaged and agency funds were used for repairs. The report notes that Skaggs agreed to repay the state the $151.65 used to fix the car.

Efforts to reach Garrison, whose salary was more than $80,000, were unsuccessful. But Skaggs, in an email to the AJC, took responsibility for “errors in judgment.”

“While I will not go into detail, I made a mistake which has deeply impacted my family for which I am truly sorry,” Skaggs, who was paid nearly $97,000, said. “My wife and I are working through this situation as a family and ask that you respect our privacy.”

Another division director, Rich Lewis, was suspended for two weeks without pay for participating in the party and the late-night swim. Marvin Pound, assistant director of the Fuel & Measures Division, was also suspended for five days without pay. Two inspectors in the Fuel & Measures Division were docked one day’s pay.

The female employee denied she took her clothes off and was not disciplined.

Commissioner Gary Black, in a statement, said appropriate disciplinary actions were taken.

“I believe in forgiveness and redemption for all involved, but I am committed to a department built with integrity and honesty,” Black said. “Through this we will emerge stronger, and it’s time to get back to work.”

The resignations come at a crucial time for the department. The loss of Garrison is of particular concern as the 19-year veteran of the agency oversaw the implementation of tough new food-safety rules created after the 2009 salmonella outbreak at a peanut processing plant in South Georgia that killed seven people across the country.

Many of those were still being implemented as news broke Monday that a Waycross frozen snack food plant could be responsible for E. coli contamination. Buffalo, N.Y.-based Rich Products Corp. has recalled all products produced at its Georgia plant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 27 people in 15 states have become ill.

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said it’s “critical” that Commissioner Black move quickly to stabilize the food safety division.

“We as consumers assume that our food is safe and there is a lot that goes into making food safe,” Doyle said. “It’s critical, especially since we in Georgia have some serious hiccups in the last four or five years with some major peanut butter outbreaks and we’ve had several recalls in the state.”

Black has named Mark Norton interim director of the food safety division.

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