Originally created 07/09/02

Special grand jury hands over report



After more than nine months without word from a special grand jury studying city government, the Richmond County panel has produced a 124-page presentment that will remain sealed to the public, likely until sometime today.

The interim report was presented in Superior Court on Monday morning but still must be signed by the grand jury's presiding judge, Albert M. Pickett.

Judge Pickett was presiding over court in Columbia County on Monday morning. To accommodate the Richmond County special grand jury, Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. signed off on the presentment in his absence.

"I think Judge Pickett intends to review this report before it's made public," Judge Fleming said Monday. "He has expressed to me he will review the presentment sometime today or tonight."

Until then, Judge Fleming said, the report - the grand jury's seventh in 31 months - will remain in his custody.

District Attorney Danny Craig and a single special grand jury member handed over the 15-pound document Monday in a second-floor courtroom of the municipal building but revealed little about its contents other than its organization. Five inches thick and encased in a large, black binder, the document has been copied onto four compact discs.

Earlier presentments have ranged in length from two to six pages.

Because of the "logistical issues" created by its volume, Judge Fleming agreed to allow the presentment to be released on computer discs to media and exempted it from being read in open court.

Mr. Craig said he expects there to be one more interim presentment and a final report from the special grand jury before it disbands.

"The grand jury is working. However, we do have an indication that it is going to conclude its work and ask to be closed in the next 30 days," Mr. Craig said.

In November 1999, Judge Fleming ordered the special grand jury to be empaneled after two regular grand juries made allegations of corruption in city government. More than a half-century separates the youngest and oldest members of the 23-member panel: The youngest grand juror is 23, and the oldest is 78. There are 10 women, five black and five white; and 13 men, nine white and four black.

Like a regular grand jury, 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.

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.

Since convening, special grand jurors have released seven presentments on city government ranging from the most recent - a study of the city's risk management costs - to its most scathing report in January 2001, which targeted Augusta commissioners, accusing them of divisiveness, incompetence and practicing micromanagement.

Timeline

Sept. 15, 1999: A regular grand jury issues a scathing report of city operations, calling for a "citizens alert."

Nov. 12, 1999: Dismayed by what they found and frustrated about the lack of time to investigate, outgoing members of a second Richmond County grand jury call for the creation of a special grand jury to investigate the operation and management of city government.

Dec. 1, 1999: The 23-member special grand jury is empaneled, consisting of 10 women and 13 men; nine are black and 14 are white. It is the first special grand jury in recent memory, officials say.

Jan.-Aug. 2000: Numerous city officials are called to testify and hundreds of government documents are requested for examination.

Aug. 31, 2000: The special grand jury issues its first report, finding no evidence of wrongdoing in the selection of Operations Management International as a contractor to operate and manage the city's sewage treatment plants. It criticizes Commissioner Lee Beard's family business, WRDW-AM radio station, for entering a contract with OMI four days before the contract selection process began.

Oct. 2, 2000: The special grand jury releases its second report on the disbursement of county funds for indigent care to University Hospital, deriding city officials for not understanding the process whereby money is provided to pay for the medical costs of the poor and uninsured.

January 12, 2001: The special grand jury releases it third and most scathing report yet report on the operations of city government, targeting Augusta commissioners and accusing them of divisiveness, incompetence and micromanagement.

Feb. 9, 2001: The special grand jury releases its fourth report, examining the assessment and collection of property taxes in Richmond County. Grand jurors recommended random audits and more advanced security measures to prevent theft and embezzlement within the city's tax department.

May 1, 2001: The special grand jury releases its fifth report, which examines inequities in the pension and retirement plans of the government employees. The grand jury recommends that proposals be sought to correct the "patchwork quilt of retirement plans."

May 21, 2001: A Richmond County Superior Court order is released by Judge Albert M. Pickett approving between $6,000 and $8,000 for the special grand jury to pay an accountant to conduct a preliminary audit of the city's fire department for the years 1997-2000.

Sept. 21, 2001: The special grand jury releases its sixth report, which says millions of city dollars are being squandered on avoidable worker's compensation claims from on-the-job injuries. The Richmond County Sheriff's Office is singled out in the report, with grand jurors juxtaposing its poor safety record with the successful records of private businesses and industries.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.