Not guilty doesn’t mean “innocent.” And “non-indictment” doesn’t mean “no wrongdoing.”
Some in Richmond County government were crowing this week about a grand jury’s decision not to indict anyone in the infamous use of sheriff’s department excavating equipment and county labor on private property in Lincoln County last March.
We weren’t surprised by the non-indictment. Confusingly, the county excavator was mixed in with a deputy’s personal one — and the two employees who went to Lincoln County on the Richmond County taxpayer’s dime were only doing what they were told to do.
We’d been told by close observers before the grand jury decision that the sheriff’s department felt there was no crime committed under current Georgia law.
But that leaves the rest of us wondering: How is that even possible? A county official — then-Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson — dispatched a couple of landfill employees to work on an acquaintance’s (and former landfill contractor’s) land in Lincoln County with a Richmond County Sheriff’s Department excavator, and there’s no crime?
If there isn’t a law, there oughta be.
It may be admirable for the deputy, identified as Deputy Rusty Eskew, who oversees equipment at the sheriff’s shooting range near the landfill, to have mingled county property with his own; his excavator had a particular bucket that the county sometimes used to greater effect than its own. But it’s not a good idea, both from a liability standpoint and because of the possibility of confusion as to whose property is whose. That confusion was cited in this case.
Still, there was, and is, no confusion about the fact that, according to even the grand jury, Environmental Services Director Johnson — who has since resigned — knew full well he was sending county employees to work on private property in another county.
Again, how can that possibly be legal? Even in these parts, such actions of using public resources to scratch private people’s backs — particularly if carried out over time — can have the scent if not the substance of corruption.
This is no small thing. Then-Jenkins County Sheriff James R. “Bobby” Womack resigned, and soon died from cancer, after being accused in 2004 of “allegations that he put inmates to work at his timber business, mobile home park and his home for more than a decade.”
“Although it is a felony under state law to use prisoner labor for personal gain,” a 2005 article at PrisonLegalNews.org wrote, “no less than six Georgia sheriffs have been implicated in scandals involving just that since 1991.”
“I intend to ask the D.A. to propose changes to the current law as needed,” state Rep. Barry Fleming told us.
Is there is no law against loaning out county equipment or labor to private citizens -- and if not, doesn’t the legislature need to look at writing one?