Conflict of Interest Questions Surround Assessor's House Deal
Sep 26, 2012 10:05 PM
Ben Hall interviews Rhonda Chaffin
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Former Putnam County Property Assessor Rhonda Chaffin had help buying her current home.
That help, she admitted, came from a developer who paid less in taxes because of her appraisals.
Critics say it raises questions about a potential conflict of interest.
"They would have done it with anybody," Chaffin told NewsChannel 5 Investigates last month, referring to the developer and his family.
"They helped me for a few months until I got my house sold and got my loan," Chaffin said.
Chaffin bought her home in 2007 from Mr. Shirley Gaw for $150,000.
But Gaw isn't just a developer. He's also a political supporter who signed two nominating petitions to get Chaffin on the ballot.
"You do have a relationship with them -- you bought your home from the Gaws," NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"So did everybody else in my subdivision," Chaffin responded.
But when the sale of Chaffin's original house fell through, Shirley Gaw agreed to help.
NewsChannel5 Investigates asked, "So they gave you a loan until you sold your house?"
"Yes," Chaffin answered.
So what was the interest rate on the loan?
"I don't know," she responded. That was 2006 -- 6.5 percent, 5.5 percent, something. I don't know."
Property records show Chaffin borrowed $85,000 from Gaw.
But Chaffin's attorney claimed in an email to NewsChannel 5 that Gaw didn't loan any money. He just held the deed of trust until Chaffin was able to pay off the home, which she did two years later.
Her attorney said that Chaffin used money from the sale of her first home as a down payment and later paid back Gaw using money she inherited, but he was not willing to provide any documentation to support his statements.
Our NewsChannel 5 investigation showed Shirley Gaw was one of a handful of wealthy property owners whose properties were undervalued by Chaffin's office.
State auditors found she undervalued nine of Shirley Gaw's properties by more than $9.5 million over three years.
They include Chelsea Place Apartments, which auditors say Chaffin undervalued by nearly $2.5 million each year since 2009.
It also includes Shirley Gaw's 7,000-square-foot home, which was undervalued by more than $38,000 a year, according to the state.
"This woman had extraordinary power in determining how much taxes these landowners paid," said tax watchdog Ben Cunningham.
He said that this situation -- where Chaffin got help buying her home from someone the state claims got breaks on his property tax appraisals -- just doesn't smell right.
"It stinks to high heaven," Cunningham said. "It absolutely stinks to high heaven."
Cash-strapped Putnam County just increased everyone's property taxes.
It also just billed Shirley Gaw more than $100,000 in back taxes plus more than $28,000 in penalties and late fees.
"As a citizen out here, working hard to pay our taxes, it's damned discouraging," Cunningham said.