(June 3) VIDALIA, Ga. — The Vidalia Onion Committee is under new management.

The committee announced June 2 that it had hired Jeffrey Hall, 42, a newcomer to the produce industry who brings nearly 10 years of bookkeeping experience with the Air Force and more than 13 years of financial and management experience at Goodwill Industries of the Coastal Empire Inc., Savannah.

Hall, hired for an annual salary of $35,000, took up his duties June 1, taking over for interim manager Susan Hiller, a marketing specialist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Region office in Portland, Ore.

However, Hall’s arrival doesn’t necessarily mean the mess that forced that change is forgotten.

Though the committee’s ex-manager, Tina Wheeler, is in custody and facing hundreds of theft and forgery charges, at least one grower is indicating that responsibility goes beyond Wheeler.

“I personally feel like you look at the situation, and I can’t help but ask why the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) isn’t responsible,” said Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms Inc., Reidsville. “They have such strict regulations on what the do’s and don’ts are. They’re probably going to have some questions to answer. I think they’ve got some responsibility here.”

But USDA spokesman George Chartier said money matters are the purview of the committee.

“The Vidalia Onion Committee, like all marketing committees, have fiduciary responsibility when it comes to funds collected under the program,” Chartier said. “The committee is charged with, among other things, establishing adequate internal controls and having its books annually audited by a certified public accountant.”

How and whether those procedures were followed is yet to be determined, Chartier said.

“That’s what’s going to come out in the police investigation and the trial,” he said.

Wheeler, 35, surrendered to authorities in Vidalia on May 24. She faces 251 counts of forgery, 95 counts of theft and three counts of false documents.

Since late March, the committee had been the focus of a state investigation into allegations of missing funds. Vidalia police Lt. Clint Kennedy reported that $639,000 had been missing since 1997.

Hall said his background in finance would serve him and the committee well.

“I see the committee growing and moving forward, and the USDA has been instrumental in helping me make the transition,” said Hall, a native of Swainsboro.

His extensive background in military record keeping in money matters will be an essential tool in precluding another financial crisis for the committee.

“That was a lot of hands-on accounting and bookkeeping in the Air Force,” he said. “I was very adept at going into places, even in the military, where we had some issues in the past and cleaning up the books and getting things going forward.”

At Goodwill Industries, Hall said he had responsibilities more than $1 million in budgets.

Much of the financial cleanup had already been accomplished before his arrival, Hall said.

“I have been lucky enough that the USDA did all that for me,” he said. “They’ve done an excellent job of putting things back together and determining the financial status and the property status, and they’ve really kept things going.”

Hiller was to return to Oregon June 4. In her place, the USDA sent another marketing specialist to Vidalia temporarily.

“I’ll have support from the USDA probably for a few more weeks,” Hall said.

Hall said the USDA had installed safeguards to reduce the likelihood of future financial quagmires.

“We’ll have every single safeguard we can have to make sure the books are open and that the financial statements are true and correct,” he said.

Growers said they approved of the choice of Hall to head their committee.

“I think Jeff is going to be a good addition,” said John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce Inc., Cobbtown. “He seems to be very strong. His strongest point seems to be public relations and marketing. We’re going to put our focus back in that.”

Bland offered reserved agreement.

“He seems to be OK,” he said. “Time will tell. He’s got a lot of cleaning up to do.”