By Richard Sullins |

Former Lee County Commissioner Arianna Lavallee and current Commissioner Cameron Sharpe exchanged tense words Monday night over the propriety of a vote taken in November to award $500,000 in grant funding to Life Springs Church.

Lavallee, a Republican who left the board in 2022 after not seeking a second term, spoke during the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ public comment period, pushing back against a claim from January by Democrat Sharpe that her vote was “borderline unethical.

Lavallee said she appeared Monday to “set the record straight about this false statement,” but turned first to an issue that Sharpe had actually never raised.

“Commissioner (Bill) Carver and I did not – and do not – receive any kickback from the results of the vote,” she said.

Video from the January 9 meeting does not show Sharpe or any other commissioner making a claim about kickbacks.

“In no way have we – nor will we – receive any payment from Life Springs Church or the Dream Center. We were never promised any type of compensation from the Dream Center in order to vote for the Dream Center’s funding. Our votes were specifically geared toward a nonprofit that will help the Lee County people,” Lavallee said.

Lavallee continued that Sharpe’s remarks were a “false and unwarranted attack that was made in poor taste and could very well be damaging to my personal and professional reputation, as well as the church’s reputation in the community.”

Lavallee also took issue with Sharpe’s suggestion that her failure to recuse herself from the vote, along with fellow Republican Carver, constituted a breach of ethics because they are members of Life Springs Church.

State law doesn’t allow commissioners to recuse themselves from votes, although they can ask to be recused by a majority vote of the rest of the board – but only if state law gives them a reason to do so. County Manager Dr. John Crumpton has told The Rant previously that Carver sought a legal opinion from the county on whether he had a conflict of interest over the matter prior to the November vote and was told he did not.

Lavallee concluded by saying Sharpe’s statement could put both the commission and Sharpe at risk for damages alleged to have been caused to “the church, the Dream Center, and my own reputation.”

Near the end of the meeting, Sharpe responded to Lavallee’s claims.

“She didn’t call me by name, but she was referring to me,” he said. “I didn’t say (Lavallee and Carver) should recuse yourselves from the Life Springs vote because you were receiving compensation. You need to look at the video because I didn’t say that. It was my opinion that you should have recused yourself because of the public trust. There is such a thing as public trust. Sometimes people don’t understand that. I never said that you and Mr. Carver did anything illegal – just that it was borderline unethical.”

Directing his remarks at the two Republicans, Sharpe said, “if you would be so inclined to go after me legally, bring it on.”

The controversy surrounding the November vote to award $500,000 in federal COVID relief funding to the Life Springs Action Team has become a local flashpoint, and the split is becoming more obvious among the seven members of the county commission. The board’s GOP majority has rallied around the church, while the three Democrats have continued asking questions about the way the board scrapped its own processes to make the grant without any study.

Sharpe said in light of how the process had unfolded, he could no longer support the grant.

“I voted to support the Life Springs Dream Center a month or so ago, but going forward, I will not be doing so,” he said.

The original proposal came on November 14. Crumpton, who is retiring from his position on February 28, recommended at the time that commissioners study the proposal and be ready for a potential vote at a December meeting.

But Lavallee and Carver pushed to bypass the recommendation, saying the Dream Center proposal addressed mental health concerns facing the county as a result of the pandemic and that no further study was necessary. While all three Democrats urged patience on the issue, only Democrat Robert Reives Sr. voted against the proposal when the ballots were cast.

The project ran into trouble three weeks later, when it was learned that the Life Springs Action Team, a nonprofit organized to operate the Dream Center, had not received approval from the Internal Revenue Service to operate as a tax-exempt organization. That prevented the county from entering a contract with LSAT.

Things got worse on January 10, when it became public that the pastor chosen to operate the Dream Center, Rev. Daniel Owens, had pleaded guilty in federal court to a conspiracy charge of filing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent Medicare claims.

The scheme laid out in documents filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania involved persuading persons to submit to a cancer screening test used to identify genetic mutations indicating a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers in the future. Medicare would reimburse the costs of such testing when it was deemed medically necessary and ordered by the physician who was actually treating the patient. Claims submitted outside such a relationship were not reimbursable.

Owens was sentenced to one year probation and ordered to pay back just under $184,000 in false claims paid as a result of his participation in the scam, along with about $11,000 in kickbacks and bribes he personally received from participating in it over a four month period. Life Springs leadership said in a subsequent Facebook video that it had been aware of the situation, and characterized Owens’ participation in the scheme as a mistake.

Life Springs Church withdrew their proposal for funding on the same day news broke on Owens’ guilty plea. Pastor Dale Sauls told the commissioners by fax they would resubmit their plan once they received their determination letter from the IRS.