Plaintiff in lawsuit against city-contracted engineering firm is sentenced in fake kidnapping, theft

Brandy Shantha Springer

An engineering firm hired to audit Beaumont’s water department in 2014 is asking the Ninth Court of Appeals to dismiss a defamation case against them as the first named plaintiff in the suit sits behind bars for theft and for staging her granddaughter’s fake kidnapping.

CH2M Hill Engineering is asking that the court dismiss the case filed by Attorney Larry Watts on behalf of Brandy Shantha Springer, 38, a former equipment operator who drove a flush truck used for the sewer system at the city of Beaumont Water Utilities Department, and other former water department employees Hani Tohme, Frank Jackson, George Randle, Leonard Faulk and Trent Thibodeaux, who are suing CH2M Hill for defamation and interference with contract pursuant to the findings of the departmental audit done by the engineering firm in 2014 that found the department inefficiently expended funds and provided excessive overtime to employees in Water Utilities.

In 2015, the city of Beaumont’s Water Utilities Department was without a director for months following the controversial removal of its longtime former leader, Dr. Hani Tohme, who was demoted and reassigned to a position in the Water Treatment and Sewer Plant and Solid Waste Division in February 2015 and then immediately took leave, never again returning to work. Amalia “Molly” Villarreal was appointed interim director in April 2015 and ultimately became the new director of the once-beleaguered department.

City Manager Kyle Hayes sent Tohme a letter that February removing him as the head of the Water Utilities Department due to “work efficiency and budgetary concerns,” including concerns over millions of dollars spent toward what Hayes deemed “unnecessary overtime” in the department.

The move sparked outcry from some citizens and from At-large Councilmember Gethrel “Get” Williams-Wright at a Feb. 17, 2015, City Council meeting. At an April 5, 2015, meeting, protestors with signs criticizing the city manager’s actions could be seen outside City Hall. Two speakers during the public comments period at that meeting read a prepared statement questioning the city’s decision and making claims of discrimination against some, particularly African-Americans and women in the Water Utilities Department, whom the speakers alleged were verbally abused by water professionals brought in to address problems in the department.

Hayes told The Examiner in February 2015 that the budgetary problems in the Water Utilities Department had been identified and evaluated through an outside audit of the department performed by CH2M Hill in October 2014. The report noted several deficiencies in the department.

“The report is pretty clear,” Hayes said then. “The fund balance is going down. We’ve got a $49 million water budget and $1.1 million in overtime. I think that can be reduced considerably.”

The report also indicated that an average of 8 million gallons of water was being lost each day, based on comparing water production to billing.

Following Tohme’s reassignment, several employees who had been under his charge in Water Utilities either retired or quit in protest, with Springer among those who quit. Springer later filed against CH2M, alleging defamation  and interference with contract. The city is still fighting a related suit against it, alleging discrimination in the department.

CH2M Hill requested Springer and crew’s case against them be dismissed in trial court last year due to the plaintiff not filing a Certificate of Merit. The Honorable Judge Donald Floyd of the 172nd District Court of Jefferson County ruled that the suit would not be dismissed, so the firm took its argument to the Ninth Court of Appeals.

CH2M argues that the audit report they submitted to the city was true and accurate, and did not include false data as alleged by the plaintiffs, nor did the firm collude with the city manager to discriminate against groups or individuals in the department.

Oral arguments from both sides will be heard by the court April 20, but whether or not Springer will be available to attend the proceedings remains up in the air as she is currently behind bars on an “ISF Hold” awaiting placement in an “Intermediate Sanction Facility,” like a halfway house, after being sentenced for theft and for falsely reporting a kidnapping.

Detectives filed charges against Springer and her daughter, 25-year-old Tiffany Shanta Hawkins, on Feb. 8 for filing a false report with the Beaumont Police Department after the women allegedly devised and perpetrated a fake kidnapping in order to explain missing money to the younger woman’s boyfriend. According to police, Hawkins and Springer staged the kidnapping Feb. 2. Police report Springer duct taped the hands of Hawkins and her 7-year-old daughter, Springer’s granddaughter, then locked the pair in the trunk of a vehicle and took photographs. They reported the incident to police, and numerous officers, dispatchers and others conducted a lengthy search for the purported victims.

Hawkins and her daughter were ultimately located on Potter Street in Beaumont the same night the kidnapping was reported.

Detectives took statements from all parties involved following the incident and found evidence that they say proved the kidnapping was staged.

In the February news release, BPD Officer Carol Riley reported, “Hawkins and Springer finally admitted they lied.”

“They committed a crime that tied up a lot of manpower that could have been used doing other things, and the worst part of it was they involved a 7-year-old child in this,” she said at a press conference. “Whether the little girl knew she was being kidnapped or not, being duct-taped and put in the back of a trunk, I’m sorry, there’s just no excuse for anything like that.”

Springer has faced criminal charges before, having spent time in state jail for theft, and was already on probation for theft at the time of the false kidnapping incident. She was sentenced to one year of probation for making the false report and to five years probation and a $500 fine for the theft. She also has to complete a program in the ISF.

Hawkins goes to court for falsely reporting a crime on May 4.

Then and now

City Manager Hayes says the Water Utilities Department has seen marked improvement since Villarreal took over.

“I’m very pleased with where we are now,” he said in an interview March 29. “Our fund balance in the Water Department was continually going down (under Tohme),” said Hayes. “Expenditures were going up and revenues were going down. Over the last two years, water and sewer has improved dramatically. Overtime has been reduced by 50 percent or more. Our fund balance has gone up well over $3 million, from $6.5 million to $10.2 million. This is critical. We were spending way too much money. We have made a lot of changes and streamlined operations, which has saved a lot of money. And we’re getting the job done. It’s a continual challenge because we are working on it every day, but we’re doing it. And the fund balance for the water department is much improved.”