Originally created 01/06/02

A question of ethics



ATLANTA - Charles Walker has never been found guilty of any legal or ethical wrongdoing in carrying out his duties as a member of the General Assembly.

That's been the longtime answer of the Augusta Democrat - and Senate majority leader - each time fellow politicians or the news media has charged that his business dealings have overwhelmed his legislative proprieties.

But the answer could change after the State Ethics Commission takes up a complaint Friday accusing Mr. Walker of failing to reveal his business connections with medical institutions in Augusta and Atlanta that depend on the Legislature for funding.

If found guilty of violating Georgia's Ethics in Government Act, he could be fined a maximum $1,000 per offense, possibly a bigger blow to his statewide political aspirations than to his pocketbook.

"I hope to see something strong against Senator Walker this time," said George Anderson, a Rome bookstore owner and self-styled ethics watchdog, who has another complaint against Mr. Walker pending before the commission.

The commission voted during a preliminary hearing in November that there was "probable cause" to believe that Mr. Walker had broken the law in his dealings with the Medical College of Georgia and Grady Memorial Hospital. That set the stage for Friday's hearing, during which commissioners will decide whether violations occurred and, if so, what the penalties should be.

The state Ethics Commission, created by the Ethics in Government act, reviews complaints and assesses penalties.

The senator is accused of failing to list on several financial-disclosure reports income his temporary-services company received from the two hospitals. Legislators must detail business they conduct with government agencies.

Mr. Walker's lawyer argued that the senator didn't believe he was required to report the Grady income to the state because the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, which operates the hospital, is a county-government entity.

The attorney, Scott Rafshoon, also told commissioners that Mr. Walker's failure to report the income from MCG was an oversight.

THE MCG-GRADY EPISODE is only the latest in a series of alleged ethics improprieties that have dogged Mr. Walker throughout his public career, charges that could pose obstacles to his openly expressed ambition to run for statewide office. Among the other examples compiled by Morris News Service involving Mr. Walker and the companies in which the millionaire businessman has an interest:

  • Accusations from a powerful Senate colleague last year that Mr. Walker used his influence to stop the creation of a committee to investigate financial operations at Grady.
  • A pending federal lawsuit and ongoing investigation by the Public Service Commission about overcharging the families of state prisoners for telephone service offered through a company a Walker subsidiary contracts with. An ethics complaint is also pending.
  • Complaints about a letter he sent to lobbyists in 1999 urging them to do business with his son.
  • Allegations in 1995 that Mr. Walker lobbied for higher Medicaid payments to companies that do health screenings while his family was qualifying to perform those services.
  • An Ethics Committee complaint in 1994 that he cursed and shoved welfare recipients lobbying outside his office.
  • Mr. Walker didn't return calls made to his Augusta office Wednesday.

    IN THE PAST, Mr. Walker has denied wrongdoing and has escaped serious punishment.

    But his current situation may be different because he won't be facing a committee of fellow politicos when he goes before the State Ethics Commission.

    In the MCG-Grady case, Mr. Walker amended his financial-disclosure reports in September, more than a year after the complaint was filed. He revealed that his company, Georgia Personnel Services Inc., received nearly $1.5 million from Grady and almost $130,000 from MCG.

    During the Ethics Commission's November hearing, a former Grady doctor complained that the quality of services deteriorated after Mr. Walker's company won a contract with the hospital.

    "A lot of nurses were forced to leave or told me they just couldn't work under that system anymore," said Dr. Samuel Newcom, a retired chief of hematology at Grady.

    Grady's former senior vice president of personnel, Joyce Harris, is suing the hospital on allegations of discrimination and harassment after she publicly objected to using Georgia Personnel Services. She has testified that using Mr. Walker's company cost the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    "We could have saved money had we used our own in-house people," she said. "We had managers who were complaining about the services, and I had to cover for that. ... I was directed to use Senator Walker's company."

    Ms. Harris eventually complained to the Atlanta news media, the FBI and the hospital's accrediting agency.

    Two of Mr. Walker's Senate colleagues drafted a bill to set up a study of Grady's finances, and the Augusta Democrat was among those voting for it. But when the bill stalled in the House, co-author Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, took the unusual step of blasting Mr. Walker from the well of the Senate.

    Mr. Walker denied having anything to do with the bill's delay.

    Besides the MCG-Grady allegations, the Ethics Commission also is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday on two complaints that Mr. Walker's campaign-finance disclosure reports didn't contain enough detail on how he spent his campaign funds during the past several years.

    A number of credit-card payments were listed as going toward broad categories such as "travel" or "meals," but didn't explain whether they were campaign-related, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Ledford told commissioners in November.

    Mr. Walker filed a series of amended reports last month, filling in the details.

    For example, a report from 2000 listed a $502.90 credit-card payment as going toward lodging and meals, and last month he identified those funds as being spent while he was on his way home from a state trade mission in Jerusalem.

    A spending item of $334.78 listed earlier only as "travel" expenses turned out to be costs incurred on a trip to Hazlehurst, where Mr. Walker was the keynote speaker at a convention of 101 Black Men.

    MR. WALKER ALSO gives no merit to allegations that he has used his political clout for personal gain.

    Recently, he said his political connections played no part in his dealings with the state Department of Corrections, a contract that has made him the subject of a federal lawsuit and another ethics complaint.

    CresTech, a company that state records show Mr. Walker's son and Georgia Personnel helped organize, is a subcontractor with the giant long-distance company WorldCom, which used to be known as MCI. WorldCom has an exclusive, multimillion contract to provide telephone service to the state's thousands of prisoners.

    Corrections officials, Mr. Walker and WorldCom executives all say CresTech won the subcontract during bidding for minority-owned vendors and that he played no part in securing the state deal. But Mr. Walker has been caught up in the flap over charges WorldCom levied above its published rates.

    Public Service Commission staff say WorldCom is issuing credits on bills for the past three months, which will likely settle that matter, but an ethics complaint on whether Mr. Walker should have disclosed the CresTech deal is due for an initial hearing in coming months.

    Among the examples, only the MCG-Grady case and the two complaints on the vague nature of Mr. Walker's campaign-finance reports have gotten this far with the State Ethics Commission, according to Teddy Lee, the commission's executive secretary.

    Several commissioners had strong words for Mr. Walker during November's preliminary hearing - particularly Commissioner Richard Yarbrough, who argued that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.

    But Dr. Newcom, the former Grady department head, is uncertain whether those statements indicate that the commission is ready to get tough with a politician as powerful as Mr. Walker.

    "This is a pretty political state, with strings attached to a lot of people," he said.

    TIMELINE

    NOV. 8, 1948: Born in Burke County, Ga.

    1965-69: Served in theNavy

    1969: Founded Walker Group, which includes Georgia Personnel Service with offices in Augusta, Atlanta, Savannah, Albany and Macon and has about 1,600 employees, and the 17,000-circulation Augusta Focus

    1981: While he was the executive director of the Augusta-Richmond County Human Rights Commission, a government audit revealed unusual accounting practices.

    1983-91: Served in the Georgia House of Representatives

    1991 TO PRESENT: Serves in the Georgia Senate

    1994: Activist Sandra Robertson accused Mr. Walker of cursing at welfare recipients who were lobbying outside his office, and of shoving her out of an elevator. Mr. Walker denied any wrongdoing, and a subcommittee of the Ethics Committee dismissed her complaint.

    1995: Mr. Walker asked the Ethics Committee to decide whether he had a conflict of interest when he presided over a Medicaid rate increase for a health-screening program with which members of his family were trying to do business. The question was never resolved, but Attorney General Michael Bowers said Mr. Walker hadn't broken any laws.

    1996: Became Senate majority leader, the first black to hold the post

    1997-99: Mr. Walker's company supplied temporary workers to Grady Memorial Hospital and the Medical College of Georgia but didn't disclose either contract on his financial-disclosure reports. Allegations were leveled as Grady's former personnel director said the hospital spent thousands of dollars more than needed to give Mr. Walker the business because of his influence.

    1999: Mr. Walker acknowledged sending a letter to lobbyists on company stationery urging them to do business with his son, Charles Walker Jr., of the Atlanta office of Georgia Personnel Service.

    2001: A subsidiary of Georgia Personnel Service called CresTech won a subcontract from telephone giant WorldCom for the installation and operation of phone service for Georgia prisoners. The Public Service Commission is investigating complaints that prisoners were overcharged for their calls.

    WALKER IN BUSINESS

    The following is a listing of businesses owned by Charles W. Walker:

    THE WALKER GROUP

    CWW Group Inc., 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    AGENT/CEO/TREASURER: Charles W. Walker, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    SECRETARY: Glynis Harden, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    GEORGIA PERSONNEL SERVICE INC.

    1416 Dewitt St., Augusta

    CEO: Charles W. Walker, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    TREASURER/AGENT: Roosevelt A. Brown, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    SECRETARY: Cynthia Sinkler, 1614 Northern Spy Trail

    CEO: Fred Benjamin, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    TREASURER/SECRETARY: Cynthia Sinkler, 1614 Northern Spy Trail

    CEO: Charles W. Walker, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    TREASURER: J. Richard Dunstan, 4274 Belair Frontage Road #A

    SECRETARY: Bernard Dunstan Jr., 4274 Belair Frontage Road, #A

    CEO: Leslie Price, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    TREASURER: Henry Ingram, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.

    SECRETARY: Ellis Albright, 1143 Laney-Walker Blvd.