Originally created 08/30/98

Column: Duck hunting trip may have yielded more 083098 - The Augusta Chronicle



The government's case against a former Democratic fund-raiser and bond-industry wheeler-dealer is collapsing -- but not before yielding an unexpected gem.

A U.S. magistrate recommends bribery charges be dropped against Michael S. deVegter who was accused of taking $42,000 from a bond company lobbyist to sway the outcome of a contract on which he was advising Fulton County.

The payment -- which deVegter says was unrelated to the Fulton County deal -- came from Florida lobbyist Nat Cole, a former state prisons official.

Cole, who turned government witness, also surfaced in an influence-peddling probe of Jacksonville school bonds.

THE MAGISTRATE is advising U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt that there is no crime for what deVegter and Cole are accused of doing.

DeVegter, a former aide to Gov. Joe Frank Harris and Chatham County budget analyst, was a "relationship manager" for the Atlanta office of Stephens Inc., an Arkansas-based brokerage firm active in Democratic politics.

His activities in that capacity may be more noteworthy than the U.S. Attorney's botched prosecution.

According to documents that are part of the federal court file, deVegter treated 11 prominent state officials, lobbyists and bond lawyers to an Arkansas duck-hunting trip that was billed to Stephens.

DeVegter's credit-card bill for the trip shows he spent $3,500 for plane tickets and supplies for the three-day jaunt.

The host was former U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson of Arkansas, who operates a hunting retreat used by Stephens.

THE GUEST LIST included all the essential players for passing a bill through the Georgia General Assembly: the House and Senate majority leaders, the governor's chief aide, the lieutenant governor's chief of staff and two attorneys from the politically connected law firm Long, Aldridge and Norman.

At least one of those listed as receiving a plane ticket, banker Tom Gilliland, says he doesn't remember going. Gilliland was campaign chairman for Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard and became his honorary chief of staff.

Former state Sen. Wayner Garner vaguely recalls the trip. Garner, now commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said he has stayed at Stephens' cabins to hunt on several occasions, and remembers deVegter being on board at least once.

ALTHOUGH GARNER remembers the trip as purely recreational, it was expensed to a Stephens account for some company project. A Stephens spokesman refused to say what project.

Only a few months after the trip, just before Christmas 1992, the General Assembly passed legislation creating a state economic-development bond program at the Georgia Housing and Finance Authority, or GHFA.

The GHFA program involved finding new businesses that already had private financing for their buildings, and then floating state-backed bonds to give the businesses a better interest rate.

To skeptics, it looked like the state was floating bonds just to float bonds -- and to generate money for political insiders like deVegter, who was involved in putting together a GHFA bond issue that was scuttled when Gov. Zell Miller shut down the program.

IT IS NOT apparent from the court record how the 1992 trip might relate to the government's case against deVegter. There is no mention of GHFA in the federal indictment, and Garner and Gilliland say no investigators have contacted them.

Was Stephens hunting more than ducks, and were Georgia taxpayers the pigeons? Only the feds may have the answer. And they're not talking.

Frank LoMonte covers politics in Georgia for Morris News Service.