Buford’s longtime top elected official acknowledged on Friday that his voice is on an audio recording that captured a racist rant by a second man identified as the city’s then-schools superintendent.
But Phillip Beard, the chairman of the City Commission and the school board, said he does not remember hearing the racist tirade. He also questioned whether the recording was spliced-together conversations from separate occasions.
“We know my voice is on the tape,” Beard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview.
“I’ve asked for a forensic inspection of this tape to make sure it’s me sitting there and on this tape and not me put on that tape.”
Beard said that ex-schools superintendent Geye Hamby (who’s first name is pronounced GUY) is “for sure” the person on the recording who allegedly referred to African-Americans as “deadbeat (n-word)” and even threatened to kill a black construction worker who’d angered him. Hamby resigned on Aug. 24.
Beard also revealed to the AJC on Friday that about a year ago, he had heard there was a taped conversation involving Hamby. But he said he hadn’t known about the slurs at the time, and that Hamby had denied involvement.
“He said there was nothing to it,” the chairman said.
Beard said he didn’t pursue it further: “There was no real credence for me to jump on it and raise sand with a situation I didn’t know anything about.”
The tip about the recording came from a person not connected to the community who said they thought the superintendent was on the audio and that it involved temp workers, Beard said.
Buford has been roiled by turmoil and questions since the AJC first reported on the recording, which was part of a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the city in June.
Residents and parents with kids in the school system questioned what officials knew and when they knew it. Some criticized leaders for not taking action sooner.
Buford High School sophomore Ja’Maya King said she wasn’t surprised it was Beard on the recording; she was only surprised he admitted it.
“Everyone in town knew all along that it was him,” King said. “This doesn’t change anyone’s mind that he needs to step down. … I’ve lived here my whole life, but in these few weeks I’ve learned that I can’t really trust anyone.”
Beard, 78, has been in elected office in Buford for more than 40 years. He sat for the AJC interview with two attorneys, Bob Cheeley and Benton Bean.
Beard said he believed the recorded conversations occurred in the fall of 2016 at a construction site for the Buford Arena.
He didn’t deny being with Hamby at the time the recording was made. Instead, he said he wasn’t sure. As for whether he heard the racist rant, Beard said he has no memory of it and would have if he’d heard it.
“It would have been embedded in my mind,” Beard said. “If I was in the car, I wasn’t listening that good to it. It could have been I was taking care of my stuff while he was doing his. … And I know this much, I would have got all over him, I’d have jumped him bad. He knows it.”
In the recording, however, two people can be heard having a conversation. Much of the talk is about African-American temp workers who are sitting around a construction site and not working, which angered the man said to be Hamby.
“Well, (expletive), they said they’s from a temp service, so I guess, I mean, you got, I mean, have you got more of these big (n-word) than the ones from the temp service?” the person said to be Hamby asks.
“There’s some who’s inside that are working,” replies the man identified as Beard.
Moments later, the person identified as Beard said of the workers, “They’s a waitin’ on a fork lift.”
To which the person identified as Hamby replies, “He said he worked for the temp service and he didn’t have to do what the (expletive) we tell him to do. (Expletive) that (n-word). I kill these (expletive) — shoot that (expletive) if they let me.”
The audio recording of two separate conversations was attached to a race discrimination lawsuit filed against Hamby and the school district by former paraprofessional Mary Ingram.
Ingram contends she was fired from the school district last year because she’d asked that the color gold — the color of Buford’s African-American school before the system was integrated — be included with Buford’s white and green colors at a new school facility.
For the interview, Beard showed up wearing a Buford schools shirt that was several years old, and which prominently displayed the color gold.
“I’m not a racist,” Beard said. “They’re my friends. … I don’t judge a man not by his skin or whatever, but whether he’s a good man or a sorry man.”
Beard said he first became aware of the audio recording included in the lawsuit on Aug. 20, in an email from the school board’s attorneys.
Once aware, he said, he and his fellow board members moved to address the troubling situation. Two days later, the five-member board conferred and decided to place Hamby on administrative leave.
Beard said, “Whenever I got a whiff of this thing I told Geye to stay off the property.”
Instead of calling a board meeting, Beard said he decided to talk to Hamby himself.
“That’s where the resignation came in,” Beard said. “That was the fastest way of getting rid of him. He’d just resign.”
Hamby left a job that paid $308,000 a year.
While he hasn’t admitted publicly that the voice on the audio is his, Hamby apologized in his resignation letter for “any actions that may have created adversity for this community or the Buford School, District.”
Beard said Hamby will receive his pension, which the board cannot withhold. But that’s it.
“There’s no severance money. Nothing,” Beard said. “He just walked out the door. He’s through. Whether that’s an admittance of guilt, I don’t know.”
Beard said that at the time Hamby was recorded making the racist rant, the then-superintendent had been suffering from severe concussions after a car accident.
“He was just a different guy for a long time,” Beard said.
Still, there’s no getting around what’s on the audio recording.
“I’m not making no excuses for the man,” Beard said. “He used strong terms and he paid the price for it. He used terms that none of us condone in any form or fashion.”
Some in Buford are hoping the painful episode spurs change.
Parent Erica Gwyn said she has had numerous conversations with her neighbors.
“I live in a very diverse community — a family from India is on one side of me, and a family from Colombia is on the other side. I go walking with two Caucasian women,” said Gwyn. “We don’t always agree, but we respect each others’ views. That’s the Buford I hope will come out of this.”
Gwinnett NAACP President Penny Poole agreed that change is long overdue.
Her organization earlier this week launched an investigation into Hamby’s disciplinary actions against students and staff.
“Buford has had no accountability in a number of areas,” she said. “It is time for more diversity, and not just of skin color but of ways of thinking.”
Like many in the community, Poole said it won’t be easy moving out the old guard.
“How do you remove someone who’s in charge of everything?”
Listen to the audio recording: