Former Piedmont Triad Partnership head David Powell indicted

by Alejandro Alfonso

David Michael Powell, 51, former president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership (PTP), who allegedly stole nearly $250,000 from the non-profit economic development company instrumental in pulling together the Randolph County megasite deal, was indicted by a grand jury on Monday, said Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Reese. Powell faces multiple felony counts of embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense, according to arrest warrants, which allege Powell used some of the money he stole to buy more than $60,000 in landscaping services and a boat valued at $41,000. Powell left his job at PTP in January 2015, and in April the company announced “financial regularities” during Powell’s tenure were being investigated by Greensboro Police. The PTP received more than $2 million in public funds from the state while Powell was president and CEO, according to tax filings. Assistant District Attorney Reese said the evidence against Powell is solid. According to arrest warrants, Powell started stealing from the company a month after he got the job and continued taking money until September 2014. The warrants allege Powell bought the boat and landscaping work between April 2013 and June 2014. Clay Wheeler is listed as the only witness on the arrest warrants. Wheeler is a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton with offices in Winston-Salem, who was apparently hired by PTP for the investigation into Powell’s activities. Wheeler is described as “an experienced trial lawyer who handles complex criminal and civil litigation matters. As a member of the firm’s Special Investigations & White Collar Crime team, Mr. Wheeler helps clients respond to government enforcement actions that carry potential criminal consequences. He also counsels organizational clients on compliance issues and conducts necessary internal investigations,” according to his profile on the firm’s website. According to arrest warrants Powell wrote checks from PTP accounts “to numerous business entities and then between business entities before depositing the money, or having the money deposited, into (Powell’s) personal bank accounts. The purpose of moving the money between business entities was to conceal the destination of the money while at the same time making the funds appear to be for legitimate business purposes.” When PTP announced the investigation in April 2015 they issued this statement to the press, “The (PTP) has provided law enforcement authorities information about financial irregularities involving former CEO David M. Powell. When PTP learned of the irregularities following Mr. Powell’s resignation earlier this year, it immediately began its own assessment of what had happened and what amount of money is at issue.” Powell’s arrest in January prompted another statement from the regional economic development company, “The (PTP) appreciates the attention law enforcement and prosecutors have given to this matter. We have taken the investigation seriously, cooperating fully with law enforcement as this matter is resolved through the legal process. During the investigation we also have maintained focus on bringing jobs and investment to the Triad. The Triad continues to benefit from an organization of business leaders working together closely to create more economic opportunity here. We are gratified that PTP investors have remained committed to the organization and our mission.” Greensboro real estate attorney Alan Ferguson does not think the Triad has benefited from this group of business leaders working closely together. Ferguson, who lives on the outskirts of the megasite in Randolph County near Liberty, believes homeowners in the megasite area are being railroaded by powerful, regional, economic interests selling local and state governments on a massive development project, which may or may not produce thousands of jobs. He has organized a group of neighbors, Northeast Randolph Property Owners, in opposition to the megasite development. “It is the creation of, and manipulation of, what some people would call slush funds, and there is lots of money sloshing around all over the place,” Ferguson said, talking about companies like PTP. “And then the incentives, that’s the big stuff. So, you’re talking about S600 million to a billion before it’s over.” Ferguson is referring to the incentives and tax breaks a large manufacturer will receive from local county and city governments if and when the megasite attracts a tenant, such as a large auto manufacturer. Economic development groups, like PTP, often receive public money for the purpose of attracting new businesses and jobs to depressed areas. When money is transferred from public coffers to a private organization accounting for the funds can become murky, Ferguson said. “Government funds have certain rules and regulations they have to exist within, and that is not a government fund. PTP is a company, as you see, it’s a chartered corporation. So, they are like any company, they have to be responsible to their shareholders, which is the board, and they don’t have the taxpayer looking over their back, once they get that (government money), there is not the same kind of oversight. “(Government money) is very controlled, they can’t just put money in a big ole slush fund and then have fun with it, they can’t do that, there are lots of people who are looking at what they do all the time,” he said. Ferguson describes his group of homeowners as fighting mad over the proposed development and the potential cost to taxpayers. The revelation of a potential thief in the middle of it all makes it more “bizarre,” he said. “They certainly tried to isolate him, you know, there is no evidence he had any confederates in it, but the fact is this sort of fund is not administered in the same way as other public funds, like county money, city money, state money, there are not laws that say it has got to be audited.” “They (PTP) say they are not making any money on it either, but until somebody looks at all those books, you don’t know where the money went or how much was in it,” Ferguson said. “It’s certainly a reasonable conclusion that PTP is not making money on this site, Randolph County is not making money right now, and the Greensboro megasite foundation is not making money right now, those organizations are not in it to make money themselves. The money to be made comes from the people who come afterwards, who know those organizations and who are on the inside— They would be in the position to know what kind of deals were coming through, who was going to buy what; that’s a good spot to be in, that’s how you get rich. It’s a good place to be.”