Friday, February 20, 2009

Roger Lovelace, Flogas, & the Law

The following is from a series of articles originally published January 5-8, 2009:

Retired Florence Gas Department manager Roger Lovelace was arrested Sunday for impersonating a Florence police officer. According to his defense attorney, Tim Case, Lovelace was released from the Florence-Lauderdale County Detention Center after posting a $1,000.00 bond.

Lovelace is 62 years old, lives in the exclusive Indian Springs community, and now works for the Brinks Security Company. What would compel a man in his position to commit a felony of this nature? Perhaps his previous life may offer some answers.

Roger Lovelace was reared in the North Florence neighborhood of Dulin Heights and attended Florence City Schools. Whether because of academic problems or other issues, Lovelace fell behind, graduating from Coffee High School in the late 1960s. Friends report that the he was an inveterate prankster and constant fixture on what was then known as "The Strip," a short access road running between Cherry Hill Homes and the old Florence K-Mart.

After graduation, Lovelace joined his half-brother Doyle in the natural gas industry. Doyle Lovelace worked for many years in the now defunct Alabama-Tennessee Natural Gas Company, while Roger toiled at the Florence Gas Department, commonly called FloGas.

Perhaps Lovelace would have been relegated to field work his entire career, but in the early 1980s, technology gave the future gas department manager a break. It seems that Roger Lovelace was a computer whiz.

When the natural gas industry began using computer technology in metering stations and gas accounting, Lovelace was in his element. He quickly rose to the position of assistant manager under Gas Department Manager Jack Hilliard. Many who knew the assistant manager were surprised at his sudden rise in the department, but thanks in part to Hilliard's own success, Roger Lovelace still had places to go.

When Jack Hilliard had taken over the management of the Florence Gas Department, it was considered something of a poor relation to the Electricity Department. Until Alabama-Tennessee Natural Gas completed its pipeline in the early 1950s, heating with gas was a rarity in this area. Hilliard was credited with almost singlehandedly making FloGas what it was in the early 1990s, a fact not lost on Florence Mayor Eddie Frost.

It was no secret that Frost wished to combine the management of the Electric, Gas, and Water Departments when the long-time electric manager retired. He felt that Hilliard could do for the other two entities what he had done for natural gas. There was wide speculation as to who would fill Hilliard's Gas Manager shoes when he stepped into the new position of Utilities General Manager. Very few had their money on Roger D. Lovelace who was not known for either his people or managerial skills. When the city announced Lovelace's appointment as Jack Hilliard's successor, a long-time Alabama-Tennessee Natural Gas manager was heard to have said, "He knows where the bodies are buried."

Lovelace took over the management of FloGas in 1993 and by 1995 was lobbying for its own Internet Provider Service. Florence needed a computer service, and Lovelace convinced the City Council that he could provide the needed services at a much cheaper rate than America On Line, the leading contender. When the completed ISP was in place, Lovelace dubbed it FloWeb and named himself the webmaster, a position separate from his duties as gas manager and one that offered a second substantial salary.

Elected officials were initially pleased with Lovelace's work and the money he was saving the city. After a few years of municipal use, Lovelace then proposed offering FloWeb to the citizens of Florence, and by 2000, the city became one of only three governmental entities offering Internet Service to the private sector. Lovelace then initiated an elaborate website featuring FloGas' private weather station, prominently showcasing the company's offices on Rickwood Road.

Despite Lovelace's lack of diplomacy or humility, it seems he was heading in the same direction as his mentor Jack Hilliard. Then Roger Lovelace's tower of Internet power began to tumble.

If Florence officials were initially happy with Roger Lovelace's FloWeb, many others were not. One local businessman, hoping to start an ISP in the private sector, went as far as retaining hotshot Florence attorney Marshall Gardner to sue the city over its intrusion into the private sector. The businessman decided to drop the lawsuit, but others were still skittish about FloGas' foray into the still-new realm of the Internet.

Rising costs of running FloWeb, few private subscribers, and a missing $215,000.00 Cisco router signalled the death of Roger Lovelace's pet project, but the Florence gas manager's troubles were just beginning. After losing almost a half million dollars in the FloWeb debacle, it was learned that he failed to lock in low natural gas prices during this period. Lovelace blamed subordinates, but did admit that he had not kept track of the overall workings at FloGas while he had been absorbed with the now defunct FloWeb.

Apparently, Roger Lovelace had not kept track of other matters as well, failing to take a $128,776.83 discount on a construction project. When auditors began to delve into the financial machinations of Florence's gas utility, they soon discovered that the company benefiting from Lovelace's oversight was Golden Construction, a company owned by Ronnie Golden, Lovelace's brother-in-law and brother to Donnie Golden, a former member of the infamous Colbert County Dawson gang.

Many Florence residents were enraged by the manager's actions during a period of rising natural gas prices and complained to city officials, who began a deeper investigation into Roger Lovelace's financial dealings. Having been shocked by the initial reports of the gas manager's haphazard business dealings, they were now dumbfounded by the emerging new revelations.

One has to wonder if Lovelace saw the demise of a public FloWeb as the beginning of the end of his career at FloGas. In all probability, he did not. His immediate superior was still Jack Hilliard and, earlier in his career, he had survived rumors that he had helped his son hack into Pentagon computers. Lovelace continued his rush to an FBI investigation that is still ongoing.

Contending that replacement pipe for the FloGas system did not fall under bid laws, he purchased large amounts from at least two companies at inflated prices. The Florence system was not expanding, a fact that produced dismay in several newer subdivisions, including Heritage Village to the north of Florence. Why the need for so much pipe? An official inventory found enough stockpiled replacement pipe to reach to Birmingham and back.

Lovelace also was known to use gas department labor at his home and continued to use his brother-in-law's construction company, not bothering to request official change orders to existing purchase and construction contracts. In all, over $420,000.00 additional work was given to Ronnie Golden's construction company without proper approval. To add further insult, Lovelace authorized the loan of FloGas equipment to Golden Construction, including phone lines.

Whether one is a Scott Carrier fan or not, the late Florence Councilman, along with a handful of other concerned private citizens, succeeded in bringing Lovelace's malfeasance to light. By now, Bobby Irons was mayor, and while he was reported to be no fan of the corrupt gas department manager, neither was he anxious to fire the department head.

For almost two years, Roger Lovelace remained on FloGas payroll, finally retiring in 2006. When Jack Hilliard also retired, Mayor Irons eliminated the position of General Utilities Manager and combined the Gas and Water Departments under Mike Doyle, who has managed to keep a low profile during his stint at the helm.

Roger Lovelace then went to work for the Brinks Security Company where he planned to work until retiring at the age of 70. While already drawing a substantial retirement from the city, Lovelace should have been in a position to offer his expertise to charities and other social causes, thus insuring a more inspiring legacy. Now it seems we will be filing Roger D. Lovelace's latest chapter under notoriety, and the FBI has yet to weigh in with its official report.

Visitors to the Florence Municipal Building may have noticed changes in recent months. Where a photograph of Roger Lovelace used to grace the wall, now hangs a poster of a colorful Dalmatian--a sad commentary indeed.