Duplin County official: Billy Houston hog lagoon matter prompts changes in outside employment policy

Duplin County official: Billy Houston hog lagoon matter prompts changes in outside employment policy

- in Environment, Top Story

 

Note: Franklin O. Williams, a Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor contacted Policy Watch shortly after this story was published. He said we accurately reported his comments at the meeting but that he had inaccurately stated Billy Houston had admitted wrongdoing.  “I was wrongly under the impression that Mr. Houston had admitted to some of the allegations,” Williams wrote by email. He said he also clarified his comments with the commission chair, John Langdon.  The story has been corrected to reflect Williams’ communications.

 Billy Houston, who is under state investigation for allegedly falsified hog lagoon samples in Duplin and Sampson counties,  has reportedly acknowledged wrongdoing, a county official told the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission this week, and his case is prompting changes in state policy.

A technician with the Duplin County Soil and Water District since 1983, Houston had a side business providing various services to hog farms that were outside the county’s purview. As Policy Watch reported last month, the State Bureau of Investigation began scrutinizing Houston’s private work after the Department of Agriculture flagged sampling results as being unusual.

The Department of Environmental Quality subsequently sampled the lagoons. The agency’s results for constituents such as nitrogen, phosphorus and metals significantly differed from Houston’s, in some cases, more than 100,000 percent.

It appears that Houston was falsely claiming the samples were from multiple lagoons. The state Soil and Water Conservation Commission had designated Houston as one of 400 technical specialists. His specialty was waste utilization and runoff controls. Technical specialists have the authority to certify that animal waste management plans meet the applicable minimum standards and specifications.

 “He was doing things he shouldn’t have been doing,” Franklin O. Williams, a Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor told state agriculture officials at a public meeting Tuesday. “He confessed to some of what had been going on.”

SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said the case is still under investigation and no charges have been filed.

Houston, who retired from Duplin County government in early June, directed all questions to his attorney, Hayes Ludlum. Ludlum declined to comment to Policy Watch.

According to state records, Houston reportedly sampled 55 lagoons at 35 farms in Duplin and Sampson counties in a single day, Saturday, March 17. Given the distance and convoluted routes in these rural areas, it would be physically impossible for one person to conduct that many samples in that amount of time.

“He was cutting corners and being lazy,” Williams told the commission.

Houston then sent the samples, as required, to the state lab for analysis.  “It took a while, but the checks and balances worked,” Williams said.

The lack of accurate sampling data can have significant ramifications for farmers. Hog waste from the lagoon is sprayed on agricultural fields to grow cover crops. But if the waste is inappropriately applied, it can damage the soil, seep into the groundwater and run off the fields into waterways and adjacent properties. State animal feeding operation permits establish what are known as “loading rates,” to prevent farmers from overburdening their fields with the waste.

John Langdon, chairman of the state Soil and Water Commission, said the false samples “could hurt the farmer.”

 “If I’m that farmer I want to know what’s on the field,” Williams said.

It’s unclear how long Houston had been allegedly falsifying lagoon results. In 1994, he co-founded a side business, Agriment Services, with two county employees. The county manager at the time, Russell Tucker approved the arrangement, even after officials began receiving verbal complaints about potential conflicts of interest.

Duplin County employees who hold second jobs must sign a form stating they have no conflicts of interest.

Two of Agriment’s co-founders later resigned from their government jobs to work independently, while Houston remained a county employee. Houston left Agriment in 1998 and at some point, started his own company, providing services to hog operations that the county did not. The Secretary of State’s office has no record of a business registered under Houston’s name.

These independent businesses, though, fill a gap left by underfunded and understaffed counties. There are two-million hogs being raised on more than 500 farms in Duplin County. The local Soil and Water District has just seven employees, and some of them are administrators who do not conduct fieldwork.

The Houston investigation prompted the state Soil and Water Commission to review its secondary employment policy. Now all district employees, not just those receiving state funds through the AG cost-share program, are subject to rules regarding outside jobs.

“This [situation] has tentacles that spread through the media and social media,” Langdon said. “We need to be a little more discerning regarding secondary employment. I’m not saying they can’t feed their families, but they should be careful.”

 “It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances,” Williams said. “We don’t want a black eye on any district.”