Originally created 10/25/98

Column: Abernathy indictment raises political eyebrows 102598 - The Augusta Chronicle



Win or lose the election, Attorney General Thurbert Baker will face two rounds of second-guessing over his decision to bring criminal charges against a prominent Atlanta senator.

With a tough election just days away, did indicting Sen. Ralph David Abernathy make political sense? More to the point, did it make sense legally?

Abernathy, D-Atlanta, is facing 35 felony counts that accuse him of falsifying state expense reports to steal more than $13,000 -- charges that Baker announced personally.

It's the final disgrace in a troubled year for the son of a famed civil-right champion. First, he got caught carrying marijuana at a security checkpoint at the Atlanta airport. Then he was kicked off the ballot when his check for the qualifying fee bounced.

AFTER THE Abernathy probe became public knowledge, Baker faced an unwinnable choice. He could put the case aside until after election day and risk being accused of shielding a well-known black leader for political gain, or fast-track the investigation and face allegations of grandstanding.

Baker's opponent in the Nov. 3 election, state Sen. David Ralston, is treading carefully. He, too, has no real choice -- he can't criticize the case because he'll have to prosecute it if he's elected.

"I think it would be inappropriate to comment on a pending criminal case," said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, adding that he didn't expect the indictment to affect the outcome of the race.

The indictment is the only real "event" in what has been the feel-good campaign of the year, the only statewide race pitting two smart, qualified and honest candidates, either one capable of doing the job.

So, even if neither candidate wants to talk about it, it has put the generally obscure attorney general's office in the headlines -- for better or worse -- during the campaign's stretch run.

Baker's predecessor, Mike Bowers, was a master of wiggling out of such predicaments. Time after time, he'd condemn official wrongdoing while finding a legal loophole to keep from having to prove it in court.

Baker at least gets points for making the gutsier -- and riskier -- choice, when he could easily have handed off the ball to federal authorities.

THAT RAISES the question of legal strategy: is prosecuting Abernathy in state courts with state prosecutors really a good idea?

Joe D. Whitley, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, has had to make those calls from the inside. Though he has no involvement in the Abernathy case, he was chief federal prosecutor during the indictment of the Atlanta airport director and a City Council member involved in a contract-for-kickbacks scandal.

Convicting a well-known politician is difficult in any court, Whitley says, but perhaps tougher in state court, which draws its jury pool from a smaller area than federal court. Abernathy's Senate district doubtless will be well-represented if the case goes to trial.

Further, an appointed federal prosecutor might be insulated from the accusation of political motives that arise when an elected state or district attorney handles the case.

Still, Whitley said any help in the fight against official misconduct is welcome.

"To see local prosecutors dealing with these cases might be out of the ordinary but there's nothing wrong with it," Whitley said. "There is more than enough corruption to go around. For a public official to believe he not only has to worry about the FBI and the U.S. Attorney but also has to keep looking over his shoulder at the local authorities would be a positive thing."

THE SWIFT indictment is bound to raise questions about federal prosecutors' handling of a comparable case against state Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah.

Johnson has been under state and federal investigation for two years for her consulting deals with state-funded tourism agencies, with no sign of progress. Meanwhile, she has locked up another two-year Senate term.

The U.S. Justice Department has a policy against indictments that interfere with political campaigns. But withholding information from voters can be interference, too.

Ten years ago, the government waited until the morning after the election to announce criminal charges in an influence-buying scheme involving utility contributions to a candidate for Public Service Commission, who'd gotten elected to a six-year term the day before.

SHOULD THE feds pull a similar stunt in the Johnson case, Baker's approach will look brilliant by comparison.

SNAP JUDGMENTS

The outsider candidate for governor, Guy Millner, is getting some help from a government insider. Randy Poynter, the former Rockdale County Commission chairman and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor, has become Millner's unofficial emissary to city and county leaders. Poynter is well-known to elected officials as a former head of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Speculation is high that Poynter would snag a top appointment in a Millner administration, perhaps as head of the Department of Community Affairs, a base for a future statewide run. His Millner connection? Both are advised by GOP political consultant Tom Perdue.

U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell criticized challenger Michael Coles for benefiting from labor unions' anti-HMO "issue ads" that were really campaign commercials. But now it's Coverdell, R-Ga., getting outside help from special-interest TV spots that praise his Senate record. The ads are placed by a mysterious Washington, D.C.-based group calling itself "The Business Roundtable," which is not incorporated in Georgia or registered as a political-action committee with the Federal Elections Commission. A bill outlawing such "stealth spending" was blocked in the U.S. Senate this year.

Frank LoMonte covers politics in Georgia for Morris News Service