What is going on in Tallassee? It is a question that even the locals are asking of late, and one that has been uttered by pretty much anyone who has read through the multiple news stories recounting one crazy event after another related to the town’s governance and those involved in that governance.
For those inclined to duck out of a long story early, here are the basic details: The mayor accused several in town, including a city council member and a major business in town, of improperly, and perhaps illegally, receiving PPP funds; the council opened an investigation of the mayor for improperly procuring a pickup truck and some other stuff that hasn’t been fully disclosed and that might or might not exist; the council also started a possibly illegal investigation into Hammock and the now former police chief for reasons that no one can really explain; the mayor called in the feds over the PPP stuff; the council removed the mayor from his utility supervisor position, and he’s filed a lawsuit against them; the council has asked the state attorney general to investigate several allegations; the mayor got himself arrested for domestic violence; the council is trying to remove the mayor from office.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that we can see.
Underneath the surface, where the details lurk, there’s more ugliness, more backstabbing and conniving, more small-town politicking, and more dirty games.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it – crazy don’t begin to describe this town for the past year or so,” said a longtime Tallassee resident and former city official. He asked not to be named, because, “I live here and I just don’t want to be part of this bulls–t.”
Those two sentiments – that Tallassee has been “crazy” of late and that if you’re not already part of it you’d rather view the crazy from afar – seem to be the most popular in town. Even those involved in the “crazy” have trouble articulating a better description, and to a person, they all wish they were merely an observer.
“I just didn’t want to deal with the nonsense, and I could see a whole two years or more of it coming my way,” said former Tallassee Police chief Matthew Higgins, who took the extraordinary step last year of resigning in order to extricate himself from the “crazy.” Although, earlier this week, Higgins, in a surprise move, turned over his law enforcement certification and agreed to never pursue a job in law enforcement in Alabama again. It was yet another oddity in a town that seems to have a never-ending supply of them.
“It’s hard to describe to an outsider what’s going on here,” Higgins said. “In some ways, it’s new, but in other ways, it’s a lot of the same stuff that’s always caused fights and arguments. But I guess the most recent stuff started with the prison stuff. That kind of got everybody divided up and angry.”
The “prison stuff,” as Higgins put it, was a fight – both for and against, depending on the side – over a proposed state mega-prison that was for a time rumored to be located in Tallassee. Mayor Johnny Hammock was for the prison, saying it would bring jobs and economic growth to Tallassee. Others, including some council members, were against the plan, claiming the prison would bring little positive growth and be a black eye on the town.
However, while this fight was certainly loud and meaningful, several other residents said it was merely another in a long line of fights – a line that began not long after Hammock took over as mayor and started changing the way things were done.
“It was my belief that the town shouldn’t be catering to a handful of wealthy business owners and should operate efficiently,” Hammock said in a recent interview. “I ruffled a few feathers when I changed the way … I guess the best way to say it is that I stopped a lot of favors and tried to do things the right way.”
There are two important things to note at this point:
- Many, many people around Tallassee agree that Hammock made several positive changes to certain functions of the city and that those changes angered some very influential people who were affected by the changes, and
- Hammock’s actions as mayor are separate from his recent arrest in Orange Beach.
That is not an attempt to excuse the arrest, mind you. Because the details are troubling and inexcusable.
According to arrest reports and details from a recent hearing in Elmore County, Hammock is accused of striking his wife and choking her to the point that she was unconscious. He spent several days in the Baldwin County jail.
Hammock has since filed a motion with the court detailing several years of abuse at the hands of his wife, much of it stemming from her alleged mental health issues and alleged alcoholism. Included in that filing are still shots showing Hammock’s wife, from whom he is now seeking divorce, holding a pistol to her head and then pointing the gun towards Hammock.
So, we clearly have a “he said-she said” situation that will be settled by the courts. But separate from those legal troubles – because no guilt or innocence has been determined in that case, and likely won’t be for several months – are the issues between Hammock and the city council.
Although, that hasn’t stopped the council from using the legal troubles in an attempt to oust Hammock, via a recall, in what appears to be an effort to capitalize on Hammock’s arrest to settle a score in their ongoing fight. A fight that dates back more than a year to well before this incident. So far back, in fact, that the fight actually started as a standoff between Hammock and some business leaders in town over the way a number of city services were losing money.
“When Johnny came in, there were a lot of things that weren’t really operating the way they should be operating, because a few influential people liked it that way,” said a city employee who asked not to be identified. “I’m not really involved in the bickering back and forth, and I don’t care about all of that. But I can tell you this: Hammock made some changes that needed to be made and a lot of people don’t like him for it.”
One of Hammock’s first moves was calling for a study of the city’s water and gas rates, which had remained unchanged for more than 15 years. The result: the city was losing more than $800,000 annually because the rates were too low to support the system.
A rate increase was pushed through – the first one in nearly 20 years for two of the utilities – and the local business owners grumbled.
Things were about to get worse, though.
An audit showed that the Tallassee Industrial Development Board owed the city nearly $400,000 for a loan from an urban development program. The IDB had simply stopped paying back the loan in 2014.
Hammock pressed for the money. Lawyers were called.
Last August, IDB members asked the council and Hammock to put up $220,000 to run utilities for a potential business relocating to Tallassee. That business, KPS Techlogis, wanted to bring 156 jobs, paying $10 per hour.
Hammock scoffed, calling the hourly wage “poverty wages” for a family of four and saying the city had more important things to spend its money on. However, before the meeting was over, the IDB had agreed to fork over $220,000 of the nearly $400,000 it owed to pay for the utility hookups.
Another study commissioned by Hammock showed the city’s waste management services losing about $100,000 per year. Another rate increase solved that problem, but local business owners were fuming by this point.
“(Hammock) didn’t care,” said the source at the city. “They were bitching and moaning all over the place. But it had been let go too long by the previous leadership. It was really unfair that it fell to the new mayor to fix it.”
Add those cost increases to the fight over the mega-prison, and you have a dicey situation, but one that Hammock was managing. Even if his brusque, outspoken management style rubbed even some of his allies the wrong way.
But as long as he had a majority of the council going along with him, Hammock was just fine.
Then came the PPP loans.
“I honestly couldn’t believe it when I looked on the website and saw all of them,” Hammock said of the PPP loans received by Tallassee residents. “There were 300 of them. No lie. Three hundred. In this town. I was shocked.”
He was also angry. Hammock printed out a list of all the alleged businesses that received loans but didn’t have a valid business license. Most of the businesses on Hammock’s list had never applied for a business license.
“There was one guy who claimed a gravel business but he didn’t even have a truck – or gravel,” said a former city worker. “There were people on there who I know, and they don’t have businesses. It was straight fraud. I wish there were a better word for it, because I know these people, but that’s what it was. Millions in fraud.”
Hammock went public. He called out the fraud, said it was sickening to him and promised to help prosecute anyone who participated. He called in the IRS and the FBI and turned over all the information he could compile.
He also publicly called out a couple of local businesses, including a local hardware store, for taking the loans despite never closing and raking in record profits during the pandemic.
Hammock’s words and actions were well received by most in town, but some took offense. And unfortunately for Hammock, three of those most offended are on the Tallassee City Council – Sarah Hill, Jeremy Taunton and Fred Randall Hughey.
Hill was angry because her name was on Hammock’s list, since her consulting business never obtained a license. Taunton is employed by True Value in Tallassee, which took in $133,000 in PPP loans. Hughey owns a radio station in Tallassee and one of his top employees – and the employee’s wife – took PPP loans.
Hammock turned them all in.
“I did not commit fraud. I filed a legitimate claim for a PPP loan because I lost income,” Hill said, explaining that her “small consulting company” had only one client and she hadn’t gotten a business license yet. She was “considering getting one, and planned to do so,” she said, when Hammock made public his list and brought attention to the businesses who received PPP loans.
Hill has since obtained a business license for her consulting business, and she said the losses she incurred – because the charity she did consulting work for could not hold events during the pandemic – were legitimate losses.
Taunton and Hughey couldn’t be reached for comment.
The PPP kerfuffle touched off a war, and what had been mostly well-hidden bickering among some council members and Hammock over a variety of issues went public. There were public arguments at council meetings. There was a fight at city hall. There were public accusations of fraud and secret investigations.
“Things went off the rails,” said a longtime city employee who was involved in some of the incidents. “Everyone picked a side, and it was just a constant fight.”
At the heart of the fight, though, was a very serious investigation – one being conducted mostly in secret by members of the council, according to three people with direct knowledge. At least one Tallassee police officer was called to a council member’s house and interviewed.
What that investigation produced isn’t exactly clear. The council has asked the Alabama Attorney General’s Office to look into a set of allegations, and at a recent council meeting, members provided a resolution that gave broad details about possible misdeeds.
Hill also wouldn’t go into specific details about the investigation or allegations, although she did mention the purchase of a truck by the city for Hammock’s use. Hammock laughed when asked about the truck purchase, saying he was told specifically by the council to make the purchase because his travel reimbursement was too high. (The resolution also includes questions about the reimbursements for travel – an allegation Hammock said he can refute with receipts “down to the penny.”)
As for the remainder of the allegations, including one that accused Hammock of “harassing communication,” Hammock said he was certain all would be cleared up.
“There’s just nothing there – I haven’t done anything illegal or unethical and they know it,” Hammock said. “This is all retaliation. I’m not even worried about it anymore. I’m moving forward and working for this town.”
At least publicly, that seems to be the approach Tallassee leaders are taking for now. At a recent public meeting, Hammock and members of the council promised to put personal issues aside and work for the good of the town.
Hammock apologized for allowing his “personal life” to cause problems for Tallassee and promised he would do his best to work for the town and keep those problems away from town business. Other council members said they were moving forward as well, although there was no mention of dropping the recall petition in which they’re trying to boot Hammock from office.
Also, Hammock is still suing the council for removing him as utility supervisor.
But at the end of all this – and the worst of it does seem to be behind the town now – despite all of the headlines, all of the crazy stories, all of the allegations and all of the hurt feelings, there doesn’t actually seem to be that much substance underneath it all. No grand fraud. No crazy conspiracy. No theft. No money missing.
“It’s just people fighting to control their little fiefdom,” said the former city employee. “It’s just small-town bickering. That’s all it is. And they’ve made national news out of it. If everybody just shut up, it would go away tomorrow.”