Deservedly or not, defense lawyers have a reputation for being slick, sleazy tricksters. Well, that image hasn't been erased any by the Augusta Judicial Circuit Indigent Defense Committee.
The committee, taking full advantage of its quasi-independent status, took $129,871 in state grant money, which previously went into local government coffers, and secretly opened its own account in January. Then it gave indigent defense office director Eddie Goode a 75 percent raise and his four staffers 22.5 percent bonus boosts.
Technically, this might have been legal; morally, it was reprehensible -- and committee chairman Sam Cruse should know it. Local taxpayers shelled out more than $500,000 for the Augusta Circuit's indigent defense office, charged with assigning lawyers to defend people in criminal cases who cannot afford their own attorneys.
Salaries for the defense office, which Cruse's panel oversees, have always been decided by the Richmond County Commission (since consolidation, by the Augusta Commission). The local administration writes the paychecks, because Goode and his staffers are considered city employees.
Cruse claims he diverted the state grant money into a separate account because his people were promised raises they hadn't received. He also says (unnamed) high local officials were told about it (shades of the River Race funding fiasco). But as Commissioner Moses Todd points out, no change counts unless the Commission votes for it in open session. No such vote was ever taken.
The truth is, Cruse tried to pull a fast one and it was exposed -- thanks to the annual audit and bold whistle-blowing by Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver. A more timid manager would have looked the other way.
Oliver and commissioners are also upset that Cruse's committee OK'd the huge wage boosts at a time when tight budgets make it hard to give other city employees any raises at all. But Cruse's committee might have outfoxed itself by not withholding taxes -- an apparent violation of the federal tax code.
"I think legally they can have the money diverted to them," says Oliver, "but they should also take care of the rest of it -- health insurance, pension plan, payroll deductions -- the works. Right now they have the best of both worlds -- checks from the county and supplements from the state."
Oliver is right. If Cruse & Co. don't want to be accountable to local taxpayers, then they should take charge of the entire pay package, and leave local government out of it. People are sick and tired of lawyers' tricks.