Above: Map of the farms sampled on March 17, 2018 by Billy Houston. See bottom of story
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.
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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.
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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 number||Farm name||Farm owner||Type of farm||Permitted number of hogs||Number of lagoons||Permit effective date||Permit expiration date||County||Latitude||Longitude||Address||City||Zip|
|AWS310131||Hunter Farms||Michael Hunter||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2448||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.8369||-77.7056||258 Authar Sloan Rd||Chinquapin||28521|
|AWS310162||Glade Ridge||Charles Edwards||Swine - Feeder to Finish||6120||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.8911||-77.685||1112 Cedar Fork Rd||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310244||Next Generation 2||Next Generation Family Ventures LLC||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2880||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9267||-77.685||363 William Edmunds Rd||Sr 1723||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310305||B&O Farm||John Byrd||Swine - Wean to Feeder||5200||2||41913||43738||Duplin||35.0156||-77.9967||1769 Wards Bridge Rd||Warsaw||28398|
|AWS310478||Lester Houston Farm||Lester Houston||Swine - Feeder to Finish||1240||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9414||-77.7286||190 Lester Houston Rd||Pink Hill||28572|
|AWS310572||Rick and William Lanier Farm||R Lanier||Swine - Feeder to Finish||880||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.8542||-77.7||300 Southerland Ln||Chinquapin||28521|
|AWS310792||Hunter Farm||Michael Hunter||Swine - Feeder to Finish||1600||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.897131||-77.825267||242 Jackson Store Rd||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310050||BJD Farm I||Bizzell Davis||Swine - Feeder to Finish||7360||3||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9478||-78.0367||1180 Lanefield Rd||Warsaw||28398|
|AWS310066||Cedar Lane Farm||Charles Edwards||Swine - Feeder to Finish||5280||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.905||-77.7394||565 Lyman Rd||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310237||Herman Davis Houston Farm||William Dotson||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2940||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9486||-77.8433||400 N Williams Rd||Kenansville||28349|
|AWS310294||H&J Nursery #1 - 3||Jason Phillips||Swine - Wean to Feeder||7800||3||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9689||-78.0367||279 Johnson Church Rd||Warsaw||28398|
|AWS310341||L&D Farms||Laylan Houston||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2448||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9656||-77.8456||646 N Williams Rd||Kenansville||28349|
|AWS310444||Kevin Bostic Farm sites 1&2||Kevin Bostic||Swine - Wean to Feeder||3200||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.859523||-77.894099||399 John Stanley Bostic Rd||Rose Hill||28458|
|AWS310445||Terry Miller Farm sites 1&2||Terry Miller||Swine - Wean to Feeder||3200||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.875||-77.8667||1816 Pasture Branch Rd||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310713||Next Generation 3||Next Generation Family Ventures LLC||Swine - Feeder to Finish||3520||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9231||-77.7478||418 Willard Edwards Rd Sr 1723||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310767||Mark Davis II||Mark Davis||Swine - Feeder to Finish||4800||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.800484||-78.126297||620 Wards Rd||Rose Hill||28458|
|AWS310768||BJD Farms II||Bizzell Davis||Swine - Feeder to Finish||6400||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.8061||-78.0969||1635 Cornwallis Rd||Rose Hill||28458|
|AWS820268||William Powell Farm #2||William Powell||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2560||1||41913||43738||Sampson||34.685861||-78.217555||3261 Wildcat Rd||Harrells||28444|
|AWS820286||John Melvin Farm||William Powell||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2460||1||41913||43738||Sampson||34.688622||-78.226314||3134 Wildcat Rd||Harrells||28444|
|AWS310232||Hunter Farms||Milton Hunter||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2940||1||42559||43738||Duplin||34.7772||-77.7717||805 Cypress Creek Rd||Wallace||28466|
|AWS310437||Justin Edwards Farm||Justin Edwards||Swine - Feeder to Finish||1760||1||43098||43738||Duplin||34.8542||-77.7008||193 Southerland Ln||Chinquapin||28521|
|AWS310846||Jump and Run Farms, Inc.||Jump and Run Farms, Inc. Eddie Maready, Everetty Mareday, Jeremy Maready||Swine - Wean to Feeder||7800||3||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9714||-78.07||588 Lanefield Rd||Warsaw||28398|
|AWS310049||Dail Brothers & Edward Dail 5-12||Edward Dail||Swine - Farrow to Wean||1340||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9683||-77.925||227 Gurman Powell Rd||Kenansville||28349|
|AWS310049||Dail Brothers & Edward Dail 5-12||Edward Dail||Swine - Feeder to Finish||5310||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9683||-77.925||227 Gurman Powell Rd||Kenansville||28349|
|AWS310092||Tart Farm||O Blizzard||Swine - Feeder to Finish||4410||2||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9528||-77.8378||158a Atkinson Blizzard Ln||Kenansville||28349|
|AWS310261||Next Generation 1||Next Generation Family Ventures LLC||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2860||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9108||-77.7397||296 Edwards Rd||Beulaville||28518|
|AWS310242||Clayton Davis Farm||Clayton Davis||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2880||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.7492||-78.1392||150 Iron Mine Rd||Wallace||28466|
|AWS310757||Buck Olsen Farm||George Olsen||Swine - Feeder to Finish||3200||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.768857||-77.707797||1249 Cypress Creek Rd||Wallace||28466|
|AWS310877||Sholar Enterprises Inc||Sholar Enterprises Inc||Swine - Feeder to Finish||3200||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.774303||-77.708316||1251 Cypress Creek Rd||Wallace||28466|
|AWS310761||Earl Davis Farm||Earl Davis||Swine - Feeder to Finish||6400||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9544||-78.0214||1271 Lanefield Rd||Warsaw||28398|
|AWS310160||Carter & Sons Hog Farm 1&2||Coy Carter||Swine - Feeder to Finish||8568||3||41913||43738||Duplin||34.8994||-77.9283||112 Dobson Chapel Rd||Magnolia||28453|
|AWS310253||Tripp Quinn Farm||Jonathan Quinn||Swine - Feeder to Finish||2880||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.9936||-77.8403||1175 N Williams Rd||Pink Hill||28572|
|AWS310292||Blue Clay Nursery||Parker & Son Farms Inc||Swine - Wean to Feeder||2600||1||41913||43738||Duplin||34.859811||-77.817853||845 Durwood Evans Rd||Beulaville||28518|