Originally created 07/05/99

Indicted lawmaker re-elected



ATLANTA -- Suspended Savannah Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson this week becomes the fourth black state lawmaker -- and the highest-ranking one -- to face trial on criminal charges related to legislative service during the 1990s.

Ms. Johnson's quick trial date -- less than four months after her indictment -- is in stark contrast to the two years it took investigators to build their case after Morris News Service raised questions about her involvement in the handling of state tourism grants.

However, her indictment has also rekindled suspicions that black politicians are being unfairly targeted, even though in Ms. Johnson's case, the lead prosecutors are black.

"There is an opinion that when an African-American politician becomes powerful, becomes a role model, there is a contingency, a move to get rid of them," said state Rep. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, Ms. Johnson's most fervent supporter in her hometown delegation. "If you go back ... there have been allegations brought up against non-African-Americans, and their charges have been somehow dismissed or been (considered) not worthy of prosecution.

"There is a large percentage of people who think she is going to get out of these charges. There are a lot of people who don't think she's done anything wrong."

Ms. Johnson, former chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, former chairwoman of the Senate Corrections Committee and a member of the Senate leadership, was indicted in March on five counts of mail fraud in connection with allegations she funnelled almost $80,000 worth of state grants to her consulting business.

Despite the widely circulated allegations, she won re-election to her Senate seat in 1998, beating back a challenge from Savannah Rep. Regina Thomas.

A month after her indictment, Ms. Johnson was suspended from office with pay by Gov. Roy Barnes, on the recommendation of a three-member review panel that included two General Assembly colleagues.

Since then, a group of black lawmakers headed by Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta, and her Savannah supporters have started fund-raising efforts to defray her legal costs. Her trial is set to begin Wednesday in Atlanta.

She faces 25 years in prison and fines of up to $1.25 million if convicted of all five counts.

At least four other state lawmakers have been charged this decade in cases involving their behavior as public officials:

Rep. Frank Redding of Decatur pleaded guilty in 1992 to a felony extortion charge. He was accused of taking $2,000 from undercover agents posing as owners of an Albany nude dance club in exchange for a promise to help kill a bill making it illegal to sell alcohol in strip clubs. He resigned from the Legislature and was given probation.

Sen. Hildred Shumake of Atlanta was indicted on charges he offered to use his influence to win a towing-company owner a favorable review of his city contract to tow cars for the Atlanta police department. In exchange, court records said, Mr. Shumake was paid $5,000. The charges were dismissed in 1992 after two mistrials. He lost re-election that year.

Sen. Nathan Dean of Rockmart was indicted in 1992 on a charge of false writing over the use of grant funds he helped secure from the state Department of Community Affairs for Polk County, his home county. Mr. Dean was represented in the case by Mr. Barnes. The charge was dismissed in 1993. Mr. Dean has been re-elected three times since the dismissal and serves as the Senate's majority caucus chairman.

Sen. Ralph David Abernathy of Atlanta was indicted last fall on 35 counts of theft, forgery, and other charges relating to accusations he made fake reimbursement requests and false statements on state expense reports. Supporters say the indictment was politically motivated because Attorney General Thurbert Baker was only weeks away from facing voters in the 1998 election. Mr. Abernathy's candidate-qualifying fee check bounced last spring, so he failed to make the ballot when he was up for re-election. His case has yet to go to trial.

Of those four lawmakers, all but Mr. Dean are black.

Mr. Baker, a former lawmaker and Georgia's first black attorney general, said race plays no role in cases like Ms. Johnson's.

"As prosecutors, we don't pick and choose targets of state investigations. We deal with cases as they are presented to us," he said. "We work with the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) on those matters and then make legal decisions on whether laws have been broken.

"The Diana Harvey Johnson case is no different than any case I have managed or has been managed by this office.

"We don't get into those considerations ... their race or agenda."

Still, Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, the highest-ranking black in the Legislature, said there remains a perception in some circles that black politicians are far more likely than their white counterparts to be targeted by investigators, prosecutors, and the media.

Mr. Walker has been accused by critics of ethical lapses on several occasions this decade, most recently during the 1999 General Assembly session, when a letter was sent to Capitol lobbyists using his stationery and signature asking them to consider using his son's temporary-staffing firm.

Still, he said, "I feel no sense of persecution. I do not feel I am a victim of anything.

"As an African-American elected official in a position of responsibility, I am under closer scrutiny because there are so few of us in a position of high influence. Whatever I do appears extraordinary."

For instance, he noted, when he was elected majority leader, it was played up in the media because he was the first black to hold the position. A white majority leader, he added, would just be the next in a long line of white majority leaders.

"I am subject to greater scrutiny because of being a pioneer. I don't think there is a racial impact there," he said. "I don't need to be complaining about race, because I've done very well."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.