Originally created 02/09/00

Decision expected soon in RICO suit



U.S. District Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. should soon decide if a former Columbia County employee can pursue her legal claims, including racketeering, against the county.

Elaine Matthews, former county commission clerk and director of administrative services, sued the county, former and current commissioners, the county administrator and officers of Renaissance Environmental, a Florida company that in 1993-94 nearly won an $8 million contract to operate the county's solid-waste program.

Ms. Matthews contends, and the county denies, that she was terminated in June 1993 in violation of her First Amendment rights for voicing objections about Renaissance Environmental; in violation of anti-discrimination laws; and in violation of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization laws.

On Tuesday in federal court in Augusta, attorney David Hudson argued in favor of the defense's motion for summary judgment, saying Ms. Matthews doesn't have a legal case.

Mr. Hudson contended a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision extended protection for legislative acts to local government levels, and that means Ms. Matthews cannot sue the commissioners. Columbia County commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of an ordinance that eliminated the jobs of Ms. Matthews and six others for a $200,000 savings, he said.

Ms. Matthews' attorney, John Michael Brown, countered that Ms. Matthews' firing was an administrative act, not a policy-making decision, and the Supreme Court's 1998 decision does not apply in the case.

Mr. Brown argued that the defense was interpreting racketeering laws too narrowly when it contended Ms. Matthews' claim was barred because she couldn't link her firing to alleged racketeering acts -- bribes to commissioners.

Renaissance officers Ricky Byrd and Jeff Nolan offered free meals, plane tickets, lodging and fishing trips to get the $8 million contract, Mr. Brown said. But to get the contract, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Nolan had to persuade county leaders to get rid of Ms. Matthews, the attorney argued.

Judge Bowen took the attorneys' arguments and the motion under advisement, saying he should have a decision soon.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.