FBI launches bribery inquiry

No charges have been filed, but news reports and rampant rumors tying retired lawyer David Fry to an FBI investigation involving bribery, city commissioners and the proposed trade, exhibit and event center led him to hire his own lawyer Friday to protect his name.

"This appears to be a campaign to ruin his reputation and character," attorney Robert Mullins said in a telephone interview. "There's probably going to be some legal action taken for what appears to be defamation."

Augusta commissioners confirmed Friday that they were interviewed by the FBI at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office as part of a corruption investigation.

Joe Jackson said it was his understanding that the case involves an Augusta lawyer accused of offering "a bribe" to Corey Johnson and Alvin Mason, two commissioners holding out on the TEE center, if they would change their vote. The intertwined issues of building the $38 million exposition center and revitalizing the blighted Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods have had the commission stalemated along racial lines all summer.

Mr. Johnson didn't return phone calls Friday. On Thursday, he told The Chronicle he was unaware of any situation involving bribe offers, but that if that's going on it needs to be dealt with.

Mr. Mason, who is out of town for the holiday weekend, said he wouldn't confirm or deny the account.

"Until the investigation is complete, I won't discuss it," he said.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he had no comment and wouldn't confirm or deny his office's involvement.

Mr. Mullins said his client, who in 2005 represented the Citizens Action Committee pushing for reform with the Augusta Commission, remains a government activist interested in how the political process works. Mr. Mullins has been involved with CSRA Help, another concerned-citizens group.

He said his client wanted to broker a deal to get the TEE center built.

"From what I understand, there was no discussion of any financial reward," Mr. Mullins said. "He believed that it certainly wasn't anything close to a bribe."

Some commissioners said they believe the investigation involves Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson being offered roles in the management of a parking deck. Mr. Mullins said he doesn't know how Mr. Fry could be in a position to make such an offer. Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, the tentative operator of the TEE center, said Mr. Fry isn't involved with the company.

Mr. Mullins said the accusations seem like a diversion tactic.

"I think there's a lot more to this whole TEE center debacle than we all know," he said.

Mr. Jackson said no one ever approached him offering TEE center incentives, but he's supported issuing bonds to build the facility all along.

"This certainly isn't helping move the TEE center forward," he said, "but it is what it is."

Commissioner J.R. Hatney, who has been a no voter on the TEE center and a yes voter on the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem projects, said he hasn't been offered anything by anyone to change his mind. He said he spoke with the FBI early Friday.

"In reality, I'm not even in a position to mention that stuff," he said. "I didn't have anything to do with it. That's all I can say."

Joe Bowles, who also was interviewed Friday morning, said he doesn't understand what an uninvolved attorney could offer sitting commissioners, seeing as how the plan for building the TEE center and a possible parking deck is still being hashed out.

"We're just shaking our heads, trying to figure it out," Mr. Bowles said.

Mr. Bowles, Mr. Hatney, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Johnson are all on a committee with Mayor Deke Copenhaver to find a compromise on the projects in time for the Sept. 15 commission meeting.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

BACKGROUND: In 2007, the Augusta Commission voted to build the TEE center on Reynolds Street, connecting it to the existing convention center within the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites. Commissioner Don Grantham garnered a sixth vote for the plan through an agreement with Commissioner Betty Beard that would route $750,000 a year from a $1-a-night hotel fee to inner-city neighborhoods. After the cost of the TEE center swelled to $38 million, City Administrator Fred Russell proposed in early May using bonds and rerouted revenue streams to build the TEE center and a parking deck while funding the inner-city projects. Commissioners have been haggling ever since.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: Mayor Deke Copenhaver will lead a five-person committee, which includes Commissioners Joe Bowles, Joe Jackson and Corey Johnson and J.R. Hatney, to hammer out a deal. The committee will present its agreement Sept. 15.