Originally created 12/24/01

Length of probe attracts reaction



The two-year anniversary of a special grand jury investigating corruption in city government has come and gone. Despite months without any newly released reports, the citizens panel has continued to convene amid increasing criticism from local officials.

The group last met Dec. 12, said District Attorney Danny Craig, who has been advising jurors.

The special grand jury, consisting of 23 men and women from Richmond County, was empaneled Nov. 29, 1999. Since then, it has delivered six reports on various government operations, including wastewater treatment plant operations, the Augusta Commission, the Tax Commissioner's motor vehicle tag office, indigent care funding, the risk management department and the city's pension plan.

During those two years, the special grand jury has cost taxpayers more than $70,000 in jurors' fees, which are $25 a day per juror, according to records on file in the city's accounting department.

Accounting records also show that the court reporter fees, incurred between Jan. 20 and Dec. 13 of last year, total $30,585.07, and so far this year an additional $3,300 has been spent.

The only other cost officials have identified is $1,795 for copies of bank records.

Mayor Bob Young says he's not "troubled" by the money being spent on the grand jury but adds that the city should start seeing more signs of progress.

"The longer this drags on, the less impact and credibility the grand jury has in the eyes of the public," Mr. Young said. He said he believes the city will have benefited from the grand jury even if the group continues to operate without producing anything. "We will be a better government because outside groups look at our inner workings on changes that could be made for the betterment of this government and our community," he said.

The special grand jury's actions have been under a shroud of secrecy since its members were selected in December 1999. Grand jurors have never spoken to the media, and any records or documents that might reveal the panel's activities have not been made public.

The district attorney said he could not share specific details about what the grand jury is working on but said jurors would work only as long as is necessary.

"These people have jobs and businesses, so their goal in life is not to serve as long as possible on a grand jury," Mr. Craig said. "Their goal is to do a complete job within their oath of office."

And once their job is done, they will issue a final report, he said.

"Logic would tell us that since the only way a grand jury is able to communicate with the public is through presentments, the fact that they are continuing to work would be an indication that they will have more to present," Mr. Craig said.

Commissioner Steve Shepard has said he thinks grand jurors should open themselves up to the same kind of scrutiny they have placed on the city departments being investigated.

"No grand jury has an infinite run," said Commissioner Steve Shepard, who also is an attorney. "If they have no more business, they need to give us a final report."

A regular grand jury's length of service is limited to about two months, but "this one is limited only by its job," Mr. Shepard said.

"I don't think anyone here expected it to take this long," he said.

Numerous city employees, supervisors and politicians have been called to testify, and hundreds of documents have been requested for examination. The lack of any indictments, however, is a signal to some that the grand jury's term should be ended.

"Two years without anything tells me they need something to do," Commissioner Andy Cheek said. "Some of this stuff is coming out piecemeal, and it's not entirely accurate. They're well beyond the time to be done."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.