PW exclusive: 25 years before SBI investigation, Duplin County was warned about Billy Houston’s consulting work

PW exclusive: 25 years before SBI investigation, Duplin County was warned about Billy Houston’s consulting work

- in Environment, Top Story

Above: Map of the farms sampled on March 17, 2018 by Billy Houston. See bottom of story
for detailed information.
D uplin County officials knew 25 years ago that Billy Houston’s side job as an animal waste system consultant could pose problems for the Soil and Water Conservation District, documents obtained under the Public Records Act show.

Now Houston, a 35-year employee of Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District until he “retired” earlier this month, is a target of an SBI investigation over questionable results from lagoon sampling that he conducted as part of his private consulting business.

According to state records, Houston supposedly visited 35 farms and sampled 50 lagoons in one day — Saturday, March 17, 2018. The results of that sampling raised red flags with state laboratories because the levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and metals were similar across many of the lagoons.

Sampling conducted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) a month later indicated striking discrepancies between Houston’s results and the state’s — sometimes as much as 100,000 percent. Lagoons are sampled in order to guide farmers on calculating how much hog waste they can spray on their fields. Too much waste can run off the property or overload the soil.

Houston did not return a message left with his son at the family’s home in Duplin County.

In 1994, Houston and two other county soil and water technicians, Johnny Lanier and Ronnie “Gino” Kennedy Jr., formed Agriment Services to design animal waste systems, such as hog lagoons. (Houston left Agriment in 1998 when Kennedy bought his share of the company.)

This type of work was in demand, yet outside the scope of the county’s SWCD, the men reasoned. And well-designed lagoons would create less work for the county in terms of enforcement and potential breaches.

In March 1994, Duplin County Manager Russell Tucker gave the three men tentative approval to do the independent consulting, as long as they didn’t use any county government resources and their work didn’t generate complaints.

However, over time, at least three verbal complaints rolled in. The crux of the complaints was that Agriment’s work posed a conflict of interest. As Agriment employees, the men were being paid by the farms to design waste lagoon systems that then had to be approved by their boss at the county: the Duplin County SWCD supervisor. In turn,

“To eliminate the appearance of this conflict of interest,” Michael Sugg, USDA District Supervisor, wrote to Tucker in September 1994, “the District board recommends, and the employees have agreed, to discontinue providing these paid services within Duplin County.”

“I agree with your determination of limiting the county technicians to working outside of Duplin County,” Tucker replied. “It will keep the potential conflict of interest down.”

Sugg now works for the Pinchot Institute for Conservation as a project director. He did not respond to an email seeking comment. He did not have personal voicemail at the company’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

Franklin O. Williams, a current Duplin County SWCD supervisor, which is an elected position, also served as vice-chairman of the SWCD Supervisors Board in the mid-1990s. He told Policy Watch he didn’t recall any complaints regarding Agriment. “There was concern” about potential conflicts, he said, “but no reason for alarm.”

Tucker, the county manager, had the sole authority to determine whether the men could continue working for the county and moonlighting for Agriment. In 1995, Tucker gave Houston, Lanier and Kennedy until Christmas to “make a decision to divest themselves of Agriment Services or quit county employment.”

Sugg contacted Tucker before the end of the year to check in and, according to SWCD meeting minutes, “Tucker indicated his stand had not changed.”

But the Agriment trio met with Tucker and changed his mind. Soon Tucker, who within weeks would leave Duplin County government to run for state representative, softened his stance. None of the complaints were in writing, he wrote, and there were only two or three.

Tucker did not return calls seeking comment.

Four months later, on March 4, 1996, Tom Jones, regional coordinator for the Division of Soil and Water Conservation at what is now known as DEQ, wrote to Interim County Manager Judy Brown that the state had received concerns from legislators, district supervisors and state and federal agency personnel.

The attorney general’s office, then under the leadership of Mike Easley, had also received some of the same comments, but it did not take a position on the controversy.

However, Jones stressed that the concerns were not about the conduct of the individual employees, but the perceived conflict of interest.

“The conflict itself involves the fact that services provided by Agriment are closely linked (although complementary, not identical) to those provided by the same employees while serving the SWCD,” Jones wrote. “Comments voiced include an unfair business advantage with private services offered based on public data and recommendations. The potential for graft is also raised and, while the truth proves otherwise, rumors can be damaging.”

The same day, William Farmer, then president and CEO of Agriment, sent a two-page letter to the Duplin County SWCD supervisors, expressing his willingness to “do anything to help resolve this pestering issue.”

He wanted the company to continue serving clients in Duplin County for financial reasons. It had “made contractual agreements” in the county worth “significant income.”

“Changes or further delay in the resolution of this alleged issue has caused and will continue to cause undue financial and possibly professional harm to not only the three subject employees, but also to our other personnel resources associated with the company,” Farmer wrote.

Farmer reiterated that company employees had been directed to avoid all conflicts of interest; he offered to hire them full-time, if necessary.

Kennedy and Lanier soon left their county jobs. Houston stayed on as a county employee. When Houston retired earlier this month from his position as a upper-level soil technician, he was earning $50,000 annually, far above the Duplin County median household income of $35,000. He was due for a cost of living raise in late June.

Despite the potential conflicts of interest, after leaving Agriment, Houston started his own private consulting firm whose clients included Duplin County farms. Thirty-three of the 35 farms under scrutiny that Houston sampled in March 2018 are in Duplin County; the other two are in Sampson County.

Gino Kennedy, now the president of operations for Agriment, described Houston as a “good guy with a good heart.” Houston, for example, is a key organizer of community events, such as a day of fishing for kids that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity. Nonetheless, Kennedy said he’s concerned that Houston’s troubles could taint the entire service industry that consults and advises farms. “There are some private, hard-working people doing this. We hate to see one scenario characterize everyone.”

Permit numberFarm nameFarm ownerType of farmPermitted number of hogsNumber of lagoonsPermit effective datePermit expiration dateCountyLatitudeLongitudeAddress CityZip  
AWS310131Hunter FarmsMichael HunterSwine - Feeder to Finish244814191343738Duplin34.8369-77.7056258 Authar Sloan RdChinquapin28521
AWS310162Glade RidgeCharles EdwardsSwine - Feeder to Finish612024191343738Duplin34.8911-77.6851112 Cedar Fork RdBeulaville28518
AWS310244Next Generation 2Next Generation Family Ventures LLCSwine - Feeder to Finish288014191343738Duplin34.9267-77.685363 William Edmunds RdSr 1723Beulaville28518
AWS310305B&O FarmJohn ByrdSwine - Wean to Feeder520024191343738Duplin35.0156-77.99671769 Wards Bridge RdWarsaw28398
AWS310478Lester Houston FarmLester HoustonSwine - Feeder to Finish124014191343738Duplin34.9414-77.7286190 Lester Houston RdPink Hill28572
AWS310572Rick and William Lanier FarmR LanierSwine - Feeder to Finish88014191343738Duplin34.8542-77.7300 Southerland LnChinquapin28521
AWS310792Hunter FarmMichael HunterSwine - Feeder to Finish160014191343738Duplin34.897131-77.825267242 Jackson Store RdBeulaville28518
AWS310050BJD Farm IBizzell DavisSwine - Feeder to Finish736034191343738Duplin34.9478-78.03671180 Lanefield RdWarsaw28398
AWS310066Cedar Lane FarmCharles EdwardsSwine - Feeder to Finish528024191343738Duplin34.905-77.7394565 Lyman RdBeulaville28518
AWS310237Herman Davis Houston FarmWilliam DotsonSwine - Feeder to Finish294014191343738Duplin34.9486-77.8433400 N Williams RdKenansville28349
AWS310294H&J Nursery #1 - 3Jason PhillipsSwine - Wean to Feeder780034191343738Duplin34.9689-78.0367279 Johnson Church RdWarsaw28398
AWS310341L&D FarmsLaylan HoustonSwine - Feeder to Finish244814191343738Duplin34.9656-77.8456646 N Williams RdKenansville28349
AWS310444Kevin Bostic Farm sites 1&2Kevin BosticSwine - Wean to Feeder320024191343738Duplin34.859523-77.894099399 John Stanley Bostic RdRose Hill28458
AWS310445Terry Miller Farm sites 1&2Terry MillerSwine - Wean to Feeder320024191343738Duplin34.875-77.86671816 Pasture Branch RdBeulaville28518
AWS310713Next Generation 3Next Generation Family Ventures LLCSwine - Feeder to Finish352014191343738Duplin34.9231-77.7478418 Willard Edwards Rd Sr 1723Beulaville28518
AWS310767Mark Davis IIMark DavisSwine - Feeder to Finish480014191343738Duplin34.800484-78.126297620 Wards RdRose Hill28458
AWS310768BJD Farms IIBizzell DavisSwine - Feeder to Finish640024191343738Duplin34.8061-78.09691635 Cornwallis RdRose Hill28458
AWS820268William Powell Farm #2William PowellSwine - Feeder to Finish256014191343738Sampson34.685861-78.2175553261 Wildcat RdHarrells28444
AWS820286John Melvin FarmWilliam PowellSwine - Feeder to Finish246014191343738Sampson34.688622-78.2263143134 Wildcat RdHarrells28444
AWS310232Hunter FarmsMilton HunterSwine - Feeder to Finish294014255943738Duplin34.7772-77.7717805 Cypress Creek RdWallace28466
AWS310437Justin Edwards FarmJustin EdwardsSwine - Feeder to Finish176014309843738Duplin34.8542-77.7008193 Southerland LnChinquapin28521
AWS310846Jump and Run Farms, Inc.Jump and Run Farms, Inc. Eddie Maready, Everetty Mareday, Jeremy MareadySwine - Wean to Feeder780034191343738Duplin34.9714-78.07588 Lanefield RdWarsaw28398
AWS310049Dail Brothers & Edward Dail 5-12Edward DailSwine - Farrow to Wean134014191343738Duplin34.9683-77.925227 Gurman Powell RdKenansville28349
AWS310049Dail Brothers & Edward Dail 5-12Edward DailSwine - Feeder to Finish531014191343738Duplin34.9683-77.925227 Gurman Powell RdKenansville28349
AWS310092Tart FarmO BlizzardSwine - Feeder to Finish441024191343738Duplin34.9528-77.8378158a Atkinson Blizzard LnKenansville28349
AWS310261Next Generation 1Next Generation Family Ventures LLCSwine - Feeder to Finish286014191343738Duplin34.9108-77.7397296 Edwards RdBeulaville28518
AWS310242Clayton Davis FarmClayton DavisSwine - Feeder to Finish288014191343738Duplin34.7492-78.1392150 Iron Mine RdWallace28466
AWS310757Buck Olsen FarmGeorge OlsenSwine - Feeder to Finish320014191343738Duplin34.768857-77.7077971249 Cypress Creek RdWallace28466
AWS310877Sholar Enterprises IncSholar Enterprises IncSwine - Feeder to Finish320014191343738Duplin34.774303-77.7083161251 Cypress Creek RdWallace28466
AWS310761Earl Davis FarmEarl DavisSwine - Feeder to Finish640014191343738Duplin34.9544-78.02141271 Lanefield RdWarsaw28398
AWS310160Carter & Sons Hog Farm 1&2Coy CarterSwine - Feeder to Finish856834191343738Duplin34.8994-77.9283112 Dobson Chapel RdMagnolia28453
AWS310253Tripp Quinn FarmJonathan QuinnSwine - Feeder to Finish288014191343738Duplin34.9936-77.84031175 N Williams RdPink Hill28572
AWS310292Blue Clay NurseryParker & Son Farms IncSwine - Wean to Feeder260014191343738Duplin34.859811-77.817853845 Durwood Evans RdBeulaville28518

1994 Duplin County Records by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

1995 Records Duplin County by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

1996 Duplin County Documents by Lisa Sorg on Scribd