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Whitfield says Urban Renewal Agency should be disbanded

by Eplunus Colvin | June 3, 2023 at 3:36 a.m.
The mug shot of Maurice Taggart is shown along with a 2021 file photo of the Jefferson County jail. (Inset, courtesy photo; main, Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

Dressed in a suit with a smile from ear to ear for his mug shot, former Urban Renewal Executive Director Maurice Taggart was briefly in custody at the Jefferson County jail Friday morning after an arrest warrant was issued Thursday on charges consisting of 46 counts of forgery, 38 counts of theft of property and one count of abuse of office.

Taggart surrendered at the jail around 11:30 a.m., posted bond listed at $150,000, according to, and was released.

The charges were filed by Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter on Thursday afternoon. The affidavit includes Taggart, along with a second person, Rodrick Morris of Houston who is owner of RM Group and a Pine Bluff High School Class of 1998 classmate of Taggart's and is also facing identical charges except for abuse of office. The affidavit alleges the two submitted false invoices for asbestos analysis and abatement in houses being torn down by Urban Renewal and stole $667,384 from the agency that Taggart led. All of the charges against the men are Class B and C felonies.

Taggart's attorney, Ronald Davis of Ronald L. Davis Jr. & Associates PLLC of Little Rock, said previously that regardless of what is contained in the information that was filed, they were going to vigorously contest the charges and that Taggart was innocent.

Former Council Member and NAACP President Ivan Whitfield, who has publicly expressed his concerns about Urban Renewal, a subsidiary agency associated with Go Forward Pine Bluff, said he believes "this is much bigger than Maurice Taggart."

Since the agency's existence, Whitfield has spoken against Urban Renewal's practices, often saying the agency was duplicating the services of the city. In January 2020, Whitfield, along with Council Members Steven Mays and Bruce Lockett, opposed an agreement between Urban Renewal and the city of Pine Bluff that would allow Urban Renewal to remove blighted properties in certain areas of the city.

Before that, an opinion by City Attorney Althea Scott said the Urban Renewal Agency would first need to acquire properties before the blight can be removed.

Prior to Scott's opinion, the agency had acted as an agent of the city by tearing down blighted properties and billing the property owners for the demolition, the same process used by the city's Code Enforcement Department in other areas of the city.

According to a previous story in The Commercial, Scott's opinion noted that state law grants cities the authority to raze and remove structures, place liens against real property and collect those liens through the county tax collector. The opinion also said the Code Enforcement Department is legally allowed to perform those functions on behalf of the city.

The city attorney's opinion said the Urban Renewal Agency, which is an autonomous body created by the city, with its own independent governing board, could not lawfully act in the same capacity but would have to legally acquire property through "purchase, contract, eminent domain, donation by the school district, donation by City of city property, etc."

Whitfield said the city did not need two agencies doing the same thing and pointed out the city's Code Enforcement office receiving $90,000 a year to tear down condemned structures while Urban Renewal received $1.9 million a year.

Whitfield also faults the Urban Renewal Board for the oversight.

"These indictments support what other citizens complained about Urban Renewal -- insider buying, bid rigging, equity skimming and mortgage fraud," said Whitfield. "Therefore, it is my belief due to the failure of the board to protect tax dollars, the treasurer, and the entire board of Urban Renewal be dismissed."

Whitfield questioned how nearly $2 million a year could be given to Urban Renewal with no strong board oversight.

"We must hold them accountable for this misstep at the same level of responsibility," he said. "Our tax dollars are safe in the city coffers, where effective measures have been put in place to detect misuse of tax dollars."

Urban Renewal Chairman Jimmy Dill, who was unavailable for comment, said in a past interview with The Commercial that it is the City Council that condemns property.

Dill said the city follows the law of the letter in acquiring the authority to tear down blighted structures. He said letters are mailed to the owner's last known address, and a notice is posted on the door of the house to be torn down. Once the abandoned property has been condemned and good faith efforts have been made to contact the owner, the owner has 10 days to either rehab the property or "we're going to raze it," Dill said.

Dill also said that the code enforcement office doesn't have the budget or the workforce to tear down more than a handful of houses each year, but since 2017, Urban Renewal has gotten rid of some 180 blighted structures, officials have said.

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley has defended Urban Renewal in the past, saying that agency and Code Enforcement have different goals. Code Enforcement is trying to get rid of derelict structures, he said, while Urban Renewal wants to clean up properties and make those properties available to a buyer who might want to build a house there.

Working closely with Urban Renewal, Watley explained during a Facebook live on Friday morning how Urban Renewal was turned in to the State Police for investigation and pointed out that Urban Renewal fell under the city and was a separate entity from Go Forward Pine Bluff.

According to Watley, after inquiries on how much Urban Renewal was spending on demolitions, at the mayor's request, Chandra Griffin began to go through invoices to tabulate the amounts spent.

Griffin is the current executive director of Urban Renewal, who was the administrative assistant to Taggart while he was executive director.

Watley said Griffin came across invoices from the RM Group that she had never seen before and she didn't recognize the name on them.

"She looked at the amount that was paid and immediately was very upset and so was I of what was going on," said Watley, who said Griffin spoke with the mayor first about her findings and then came and told him, stating the mayor had turned it over to the State Police.

As far as how something like this happens, Watley said it was the appearance of working every day and the normal business process. He also explained in a live video on Friday that the payment requests also require an Urban Renewal board member's signature before they are turned over to the city's clerk's office, which won't pay an invoice without proper documentation.

City Attorney Scott said she was not a part of the discovery or included in any discussions on what should be done about the missing money and was later notified by the mayor that there may be an investigation that had to do with Taggart and that Hunter was handling it.

According to Scott, she didn't know any details of the investigation and said the mayor's office "championed it from the beginning to end." Washington has said in a previous interview that they were instructed by authorities not to speak about the investigation.

Griffin released a statement Friday morning stating the PBURA first discovered discrepancies between its records and the city's and immediately reported those issues to the proper authorities.

"PBURA has fully cooperated with the investigation into this matter," the statement read. "The PBURA will continue to cooperate with law enforcement authorities throughout with the goal of properly upholding the public trust."

"Nevertheless, this incident clearly shows that Urban Renewal should have never been introduced to our community and that legislation should have been left in the dustbins of history," said Whitfield. "Go Forward has tried to claim everything it can to make people believe that they have improved our community. But they want to divorce anything that goes wrong or fails. Everything is Go Forward when they want our tax dollars, but nothing is Go Forward when it comes to transparency and now accountability."

Whitfield said he is calling on the City Council to "do the right thing for the citizens of Pine Bluff" and recall the appropriation given to Urban Renewal. He also said he is calling for the assistance and support of the National NAACP to help the local branch protect the community and investigate the wrongdoing associated with this "failed public-private partnership."

"This is very unfortunate and a tragedy, no matter the outcome," said Whitfield. "We offer prayers to the Taggart family and for everyone impacted, and for the residents of our city."

Print Headline: Former Urban Renewal chief released on bond


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