Motive unknown in bribery case

Special
David W. Fry was arrested at his home and charged with two counts of bribery.

Many in Augusta want to see city commissioners resolve their differences on building a downtown trade, exhibit and event center, but the motive behind an alleged illicit offer that has an attorney facing felony charges remains a mystery.

David W. Fry, accused Tuesday of trying to bribe Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason and Commissioner Corey Johnson to change their votes to fund the $38 million center, doesn't appear to be connected to any organization that stands to benefit.

He has no involvement in Augusta Riverfront LLC, a company with ties to the ownership of The Augusta Chronicle that would operate the center if it's built on Reynolds Street, according to company President Paul Simon.

Nor is he involved with the Downtown Development Authority, said Executive Director Margaret Woodard.

Under some plans being discussed, the authority would issue bonds to raise as much as $17 million for a parking deck or as much as $8.5 million to jump-start development in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength, announcing Mr. Fry's arrest at a news conference Tuesday, confirmed that Mr. Fry wasn't a contractor and isn't part of any company in a potential management position.

As to what Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson were offered, the sheriff would say only that Mr. Fry "laid out this plan and if they would change their vote, how they, being commissioners, would benefit in the passing of a TEE center, subsequently building the parking deck."

Commissioners and city officials have said the two commissioners were offered posts in a management company, yet to be established, that would operate the deck.

Asked whether there was any evidence Mr. Fry could have delivered, the sheriff said only that offering something of value to get something done, in the context of city government, constitutes bribery.

Mr. Fry, 57, is charged with two counts of bribery. He was arrested at his home on Indian Cove Road off Berckmans Road.

The sheriff said Mr. Fry called Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson on Aug. 21 and set up a meeting. The two went to Mr. Fry's home and heard the attorney propose his plan, the sheriff said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he was contacted by Mr. Fry, too, and told about a plan involving a parking deck management company.

"I have no idea what his capacity was," Mr. Brigham said. "He told me he was meeting with Corey and Al.

"I think he thought that I was going to commit to doing that," Mr. Brigham said.

Mr. Brigham said he didn't report the offer to police because he "didn't know if it was just somebody talking or what."

The Sunday after their meeting with Mr. Fry, Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Brigham to meet them in the parking lot of Longhorn Steakhouse on Washington Road, he said. The two wanted to know where he stood, and Mr. Brigham said he told them it sounded like a bad idea.

The next morning, the two commissioners went to attorney Freddie Sanders, who reported Mr. Fry's offer to Sheriff Strength. The sheriff's office began investigating and within days asked the FBI to sit in on interviews. Other commissioners and the mayor were interviewed, and the sheriff said he has concluded that none was involved in the offer.

At some point in the investigation, documents were obtained and conversations recorded, the sheriff said.

Mr. Johnson, who last week said he was unaware of any possible bribery, did not return phone calls Tuesday. Mr. Mason said he can't comment with the investigation ongoing.

"I will have faith in the justice system that it will do what needs to be done," he said.

Mr. Fry was released from the Richmond County jail Tuesday evening on an $11,400 bond. According to accounts, before his arrest he gave differing versions of his dealings with Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson to the police and news media outlets.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, Mr. Fry owned D.W. Fry's nightclub near Wrightsboro Road and Highland Avenue. He later owned Marlowe's nightclub on Bertram Road. In 1990, he graduated cum laude from Mercer Law School, according to Chronicle archives.

In recent years he has been on the periphery of commission dealings, offering both solicited and unsolicited ideas and advice.

In 2005, he represented the Citizens Action Committee, led by activist Woody Merry, in its unsuccessful efforts to change all 10 commission districts to at-large seats that would have to be won countywide.

He got involved in the TEE center earlier this summer, when Commissioner Joe Bowles asked him for a second opinion on whether collecting the $1-a-night hotel fee would be illegal if the facility weren't built. Mr. Bowles said Mr. Fry confirmed what City Attorney Chiquita Johnson said, that without the TEE center there can be no bed fee.

In June, Mr. Fry sent a long letter to Mayor Deke Copenhaver suggesting the city build a "Sports, Entertainment, and Convention Center Multiplex" with a retractable roof.

According to documents obtained by The Chronicle , he e-mailed the letter to Commissioner Don Grantham and Mr. Brigham on Aug. 23 -- two days after his meeting with Mr. Mason and Mr. Johnson.

In a postscript note, he said trolley cars should be put on Reynolds Street "in view of the possible T-Center/Parking Complex Approval as of September 1, 2009."

That was the date of the next scheduled commission meeting, where the commission had the mayor form a committee to hammer out a possible resolution on the TEE center.

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