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Maurice Taggart charged in connection with theft of $667,000 from Urban Renewal Agency

by Eplunus Colvin | June 1, 2023 at 11:40 p.m.
Maurice Taggart, former executive director of of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, is shown in this undated courtesy photo. (Special to the Commercial)

Maurice Taggart, former director of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, was charged Thursday with 46 counts of forgery, 38 counts of theft of property and one count of abuse of office in a scheme that allegedly bilked $667,384 out of the agency, according to the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

A second person, Rodrick Morris of Houston, a Pine Bluff High School Class of 1998 classmate of Taggart’s, was charged with identical counts except for the abuse of office charge. Both men, now 43 years old, were 39 when the violations allegedly occurred.

The two are alleged to have submitted false invoices for asbestos analysis and abatement in houses being torn down by Urban Renewal, a subsidiary agency associated with Go Forward Pine Bluff, according to the charging paperwork filed by Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter late Thursday. The invoices, ranging from less than $6,000 to almost $23,000, were then paid by the city of Pine Bluff.

Hunter said at about 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, moments after he filed the charges, that the men had not been arrested but that that would likely happen quickly.

“I think they’ll try to make an arrest as soon as they can,” Hunter said.

  photo  Maurice Taggart (left), at the time the director of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, poses with Congressman Bruce Westerman (center); Mary Pringos, the vice chairman of Go Forward Pine Bluff; Tommy May, Go Forward’s chairman; and Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley in this 2021 file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Special to The Commercial)

Hunter said the result of the charges are from a State Police investigation that began in July 2022 when Hunter contacted the agency and asked for assistance.

“It culminated in the filing of charges, which are 46 counts of forgery, 38 counts of theft of property,” said Hunter. “That’s on both men, and Maurice Taggart was also charged with one count of abuse of office which is a class B felony.”

The forgery charges were for Class C felonies that allegedly occurred between June 2019 and August 2021, while the theft of property charges were both Class B and Class C felonies that allegedly occurred between July 2020 and August 2021. Taggart turned in his resignation as executive director of Urban Renewal in September 2021, saying he had recently gotten his law license and he was going into private practice.

Class B felonies carry a possible sentence of 5 to 20 years in prison plus a fine of up to $15,000, while Class C felonies are punishable by 3 to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Contacted Thursday night, Taggart declined to comment, but he did post a note later in the evening to a social media account: “To all my clients, like I always tell you, you’re innocent UNLESS proven guilty. In light of that, just know that i remain steadfast in representing each of you and that won’t change. If I’ll fight tooth and nail for you, imagine what I’ll do for myself,” he stated.

The Urban Renewal Agency works to clean up blighted areas in Pine Bluff, and it has also attempted to bring businesses and other investors into the downtown area.

  photo  The Urban Renewal Agency has razed more than 180 houses in Pine Bluff, including this house located in the 1200 block of West 18th Avenue. (Pine Bluff Commercial file photo/Dale Ellis)

Ronald Davis of Ronald L. Davis Jr. & Associates PLLC of Little Rock, attorney for Taggart, said they were aware Taggart was under investigation for some time. Davis said he has not had an opportunity to review the charges.

“Regardless of what is contained in the information that was filed, we are going to vigorously refute,” said Davis. “Certainly he is not guilty of whatever he is being charged with.”

Davis said they have not participated in the investigation and that a search warrant was served a few months ago to seize Taggart’s cell phone.

The investigation specifically focused on what was said to be an asbestos abatement company identified as RM Group LLC, which is owned by Morris. According to the affidavit, the investigation focused on whether or not Taggart and Morris worked together to defraud the Urban Renewal Agency. The affidavit states that Taggart generated a “Procurement Documentation,” which informed the city of Pine Bluff that the Urban Renewal Agency would only be using three specific vendors regarding asbestos analysis and abatement, with RM Group LLC being one of the three.

During the course of the investigation, it was revealed that from May 2019 through August 2021, Morris allegedly submitted 46 invoices to the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, which totaled approximately $667,384. All of the noted invoices were sent to the attention of Taggart, who was the executive director of Urban Renewal during that time period. Taggart would then enter all of the invoices into “New World,” a financial software used by the city of Pine Bluff to pay vendors once an invoice is received, according to the affidavit.

Investigators contacted Gary Nooner, with Environmental Protection Associates, a licensed asbestos abatement company in Arkansas, who was provided a copy of all RM Group LLC invoices to determine if EPA had also provided an invoice to the Urban Renewal Agency for the same properties. Nooner said that EPA had provided Urban Renewal with approximately 88 invoices, all of which were paid by the city of Pine Bluff/Urban Renewal for work done at the properties where RM Group LLC also received payment for asbestos abatement.

Bank documents, according to the affidavit, provided by Wells Fargo Bank showed that Morris had an account in Pleasanton, Texas.

According to invoices provided by Ron Allen, the environmental program coordinator for the asbestos section of the Arkansas Department of Energy & Environment (ADEQ), there was no record of RM Group LLC conducting asbestos abatement work or demolition work on any properties identified on the noted invoices and no record on file of RM Group LLC having the necessary license to conduct asbestos abatement work in Arkansas.

“The investigation has revealed that ‘RM Group LLC’ conducted no asbestos abatement work for the City of Pine Bluff Urban Renewal agency for the period of time in question,” stated the affidavit.

Interviews during the investigation with Taggart revealed the he knew Morris as the owner of RM Group but that he usually dealt with “the other guy” and that he would not routinely speak with Morris about work that needed to be done. Investigators, however, said Taggart told them he didn’t know the name of the other person or have a phone number for that person.

Taggart’s cellphone records were subpoenaed in an attempt to have a better understanding of how frequently Taggart and Morris communicated while Taggart was the executive director of Urban Renewal. According to the affidavit, Taggarts’s cellphone records showed that from May 1, 2019 to July 31, 2022, Taggart and Morris talked on the phone 894 times with 439 of those calls happening during the hours of 9 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.

  photo  Interim Executive Director Chandra Griffin meets with former Executive Director Maurice Taggart before a Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency board meeting in this Tuesday, March 15, 2022 file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff and someone who considers Taggart a friend, said he had been anticipating this since the current director of Urban Renewal Chandra Griffin, and Mayor Shirley Washington reported it to the state auditors.

“During the final accounting some things did not add up. There was no legitimate excuse for some of the money that was missing,” said Watley. “When it was reported we knew something was wrong, we just didn’t know what.”

Watley said Go Forward officials are glad that some clarity is starting to come out but at the same time the situation is heartbreaking.

“It’s a sad day in that his family will have to endure this as well as Pine Bluff as a city,” said Watley who said it will be challenging to recruit investors and retain citizens. “It’s not good for anyone. While there is compelling evidence in our findings, I hope some kind of way he turns out innocent, but even now with the perception of all this it’s not good for the future of young Black males to get the chances in these types of operations where you are entrusted with operations and administrations of millions of dollars.”

Hunter said he would seek to have Taggart’s bond set at $150,000 and Morris’ at $250,000, adding that Morris’ would likely be set higher because he lives out of state.

This story has updated. It was originally published at 9:55 p.m. under the headline "Maurice Taggart, ex-director of Pine Bluff Urban Renewal, charged with forgery, theft."


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