Originally created 11/13/99

Jurors call for special grand jury



Dismayed by what they found and frustrated about the lack of time to investigate, outgoing members of the Richmond County grand jury called Friday for the creation of a special grand jury to investigate the operation and management of Augusta-Richmond County government.

"The limited term of two months for each grand jury has proven to be a significant impediment to an effective inquiry and to continuity of this undertaking," the grand jury report states. "The issues raised are too large to be handled in a normal grand jury term.

"The `citizens alert' issued by the July grand jury still rings loud and clear."

Mayor Bob Young seconded the call for a special grand jury, writing Augusta Judicial Circuit Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. on Friday. "Judge Fleming, I support the call for a special grand jury and ask you to empanel such a body in an expeditious manner," Mr. Young wrote.

The findings Friday mark the second time a Richmond County grand jury has slammed city leaders, suggesting that taxpayers' funds are being wasted; a good ol' boy system of hiring, promoting and doling out raises is alive and well; incompetence exists; and that a smell of corruption lingers over the commission.

After the previous grand jury issued its scathing report Sept. 15, city leaders criticized the report asunfair and unspecific.

Friday's report got specific. For example:

A convicted felon sits on the Personnel Board, which is composed of members picked more by political patronage than experience and background.

A fire department captain who sits on the bid specifications committee got a nearly $24,000 bid to provide firefighting equipment to Bush Field.

The company selected to run the city's sewer plant made political contributions to commissioners and to a commissioner's nonprofit organization, and commissioners involved in low-income housing are doing business with the county and its vendors.

A commissioner may have committed perjury before the grand jury in denying ownership of specific property.

Administrators at the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Departmentgot big raises while rank-and-file firefighters received minimal raises, although many of the combat firefighters often had higher evaluation ratings.

Getting a county job depends more on friendship and political connections than skill and experience, even with strong policies in place.

Nearly $1 million was taken out of an employee pension plan to purchase real estate on Reynolds Street.

And questions -- the grand jury posed many about how the local government operates. The grand jury examined numerous witnesses under oath and examined thousands of documents to address the concerns of the previous grand jury. In doing so, they developed many more concerns that must be pursued, the report says.

"This committee calls for the impaneling of a special grand jury to continue the investigation of the operation and management of the Augusta-Richmond County government," the report states. "Supporting this call are the following concerns that have been developed, each one requiring hours of time and effort to fully resolve."

District Attorney Danny Craig said Friday that the chief judge is authorized by law to appoint a special grand jury if a formal request is made in writing.

"I'll see to it that that gets done," Mr. Craig said.

Under the state law governing special grand juries, it is the chief judge'sresponsibility to take such a request to allthe Superior Court judges for a vote. If a majority believe a special grand jury should be empaneled, one will be.

Like a regular grand jury, but without its other duties, a special grand jury is authorized by law to compel the production of any documents of any governmental body or any person or business related directly or indirectly to the subject under investigation.

If a special grand jury is empaneled, the chief judge is to assign a Superior Court judge to assist the grand jury in carrying out its investigation. The grand jury would make periodic progress reports and a final report of its findings to that judge.

The special grand jury may sit until it decides its investigation is completed -- unlike a regular grand jury, which only meets for two terms of court, which in Augusta is about two months.

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