Originally created 09/12/99

Panel can oversee government



All grand juries are not equal.

While grand jury subpoenas delivered last week to Augusta commissioners may stir up images of a Whitewater-type investigation in the minds of local citizens, the Richmond County grand jury and the one convened by Judge Kenneth Starr have little in common, according to District Attorney Danny Craig.

"In the state of Georgia, investigative grand juries are not allowed," Mr. Craig explained. "In other words, we could never conduct a grand jury in the way Kenneth Starr conducted the grand jury in Washington."

The commissioners and city administrator Randy Oliver were served with subpoenas before last Tuesday's city commission meeting ordering them to appear at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Mayor Bob Young was not subpoenaed.

Since then, some city officials have characterized the grand jury's inquiry as a "fishing expedition," implying it was an investigation bent on ferreting out criminal wrongdoing and issuing indictments.

But under state law, grand juries may only vote to indict a person when presented with a formal accusation, specifying charges, by the district attorney, Mr. Craig said.

Whatever reason the grand jury may have for questioning commissioners, it stems from the body's civil duties and not from some open-ended criminal investigation, Mr. Craig said.

A grand jury in Georgia not only can determine who is indicted on felony criminal charges, but also can review the operations of local government, a civil obligation.

"What they are there to do is to examine the operations of the offices of the county and elected officials and to make observations in their presentments about how those offices are being run," he said.

If the grand jury becomes aware of apparent criminal acts, it must call upon its legal adviser, the district attorney, and ask for a criminal investigation to begin, he explained.

A grand jury cannot accuse public officials of malfeasance or incompetence outside a criminal indictment, but it issues a report after examining county offices and the conduct of public officials at the end of its eight-week term.

No criminal indictments have emerged from civil inquiries in as long as he can remember, Mr. Craig said.

If history is any way to judge, harsh criticisms -- not criminal charges -- are more likely to result from this inquiry.

The reports issued in Richmond County have praised and stung.

"If there was a law against irresponsible, slovenly, capricious behavior by county employees, this grand jury could recommend a number of indictments," grand jurors wrote in a March 1996 presentment concerning the county garages.

"The investigation has resulted in no indictments, but has uncovered grossly inept management practices undermining the public trust in local government and demonstrating a flagrant disregard for the protection of public funds," that presentment read.

In January 1997, another grand jury group explored the shortcomings of the public library and its funding. "Our group was shocked at some of the things we learned and saw.

"Our residents, not tourists, should be our top priority, and hopefully our county government will begin to recognize the importance of a strong library system and move to rectify years of serious neglect," those grand jurors wrote in their presentment.

As Mr. Craig often points out, a grand jury is, by law, composed of the "most experienced, upright and intelligent persons."

"They are a select group because they have a very, very responsible position which includes certain civil functions and duties to their criminal functions and an oath of secrecy," he said.

In Richmond County, a new 23-member panel is selected every two months to consider criminal indictments, according to Richmond County Jury Clerk Tina Powers. These jurors are randomly selected from a 2,000-person pool, known as the Grand Jury Box, said Mr. Craig.

"The reason it is called that, is that at one time it was a wooden box that contained a card bearing the name of each person that was part of the grand jury (pool)," he said.

Now the "box" is a computer database, updated every year, to replace potential jurors who are deceased or otherwise unavailable for duty, Ms. Powers said.

The names for that database are selected by a six-member commission from information gained in juror questionaires, which are mailed out every two years to registered voters, Ms. Powers said.

"Some people can walk in my office and ask for a form, but most people come from voter registration (rolls)," she said.

Members of the grand jury commission are appointed to six-year terms by Chief Superior Court Judge William Fleming Jr.

After assembling the potential juror pool, the commission must ensure the demographic make-up of the pool reflects the community at-large.

"They have to go and do a demographic count of those citizens to make sure that the grand jury box reflects within a 5 percent margin of error the demographics of the community, insofar as race, gender and age," Mr. Craig said.

In neighboring Burke and Columbia counties, pools contain about 500 potential jurors, and grand juries are empaneled to serve six-month terms instead of two months, as is in Richmond County.

"A two-month term is pretty common among the metropolitan circuits," he said.

To accomplish its civil duty, a grand jury has the right to examine all records and compel the attendance of witnesses.

Commissioners met with Richmond County grand jurors for more than two hours Sept. 2, but they had not been subpoenaed and were not under oath during the meeting. The grand jury had invited them and Mr. Oliver by letter to meet with them. Mr. Young, who was in Japan at the time, was not invited to that meeting, either.

Commissioner J.B. Powell did not attend that meeting because he had to work, he said.

It will be at the discretion of the grand jury whether the commissioners will be put under oath when questioned Tuesday, Mr. Craig said.

Georgia law permits the grand jury to hear and see any witness and evidence it wants during its civil review of county government. The grand jury may also seek expert assistance, such as an accountant.

By law the grand jury must at least once a year inspect the condition and operations of the county jail. And once every three years it must inspect and examine the office and operations of the superior court clerk, district attorney, probate court judge and county treasurer.

But the law also allows the grand jury to inspect or investigate any county office, operation or building if eight of the grand jurors believe it is necessary.

Jury commissionersThe Richmond County Board of Jury Commissioners serves a six-year term. Commissioners pick the grand jury pool from which jurors are selected. The commissioners are Joan Shackleford, Ruth Bowers, Mary Frances Braithwaite, Virginia Drawdy, Lester Newsome and Dick Frank.