Originally created 11/20/02

Special grand jury hits leaders



The Richmond County Special Grand Jury said failed attempts by state and local leaders to improve city operations should empower Augusta residents to work toward stamping out government corruption.

Citing the "downward spiral" of Augusta's economic activity, grand jurors said their presentment - released Tuesday morning - demonstrates "that nothing has been done to ameliorate the present situation," despite a "pressing need for governmental reform."

"The charter committee failed to provide a charter; the local legislative delegation was unable to effectively legislate a bill; the county commissioners were sulky in their inaction," grand jurors wrote.

"It is time for the community itself to take direct action."

In its 10th and likely final presentment, the special grand jury attacked government structure, questioned the ethics of elected officials and scolded the city administrator. The six-page report was also a defense of the grand jury's investigation into government operations, which has lasted almost three years, saying, "Competency alone was all that mattered.

"Never relying on the word of just one person, jurors spent innumerable hours taking testimony from hundreds of witnesses and examining thousands of documents," the presentment said. "In producing nine presentments analyzing government operations, the SGJ found that the facts spoke for themselves."

Although some new recommendations were made, the final report mostly reviewed many of the grand jurors' earlier recommendations, including giving the mayor veto power, strengthening city ethics ordinances and abolishing abstentions and "present" votes by Augusta commissioners, except in the case of a conflict of interest.

In open court Tuesday morning, Superior Court Judge Albert M. Pickett, who read the report's recommendations aloud, at one point exclaimed "Hallelujah!" to grand jurors' suggestion that a simple majority be able to rule Augusta Commission meetings when a quorum is present.

"To any outside observer, it looks like a fifth-grade operation," Judge Pickett said of such nonvotes.

Judge Pickett also commended the 23-member panel for working long hours under "intense public scrutiny and occasional public criticism."

"They were doing the people's business and the people's work," he said.

The special grand jury will remain empaneled for 60 more days. District Attorney Danny Craig said the panel will only reconvene in the event that their conclusions are disputed.

"Right now, they anticipate this being their final presentment," Mr. Craig said.

THE RICHMOND COUNTY Special Grand Jury was first empaneled in December 1999. Two regular grand juries called for its creation, saying they were dismayed and frustrated by the lack of time to investigate possible corruption in city government.

Nine presentments and three years later, the grand jury's final report suggests empaneling a special grand jury every five to seven years until a charter "with adequate checks and balances" is drafted.

"A future special grand jury would look into and expose gridlock, cronyism, fraud, abuse and waste that will likely continue to occur."

Most of the grand jury's recommendations revisited earlier presentments, including:

  • The fire presentment
  • Grand jurors said their 124-page presentment on alleged corruption in the Fire Department was distorted by elected officials as a racially motivated attack on a black leader to avoid addressing the problems identified in that report, which crossed racial lines.

    "Shady promotions and skewed raises" negatively impacted black firefighters as well as white, the presentment said.

    "Augusta taxpayers, fleeced by his waste, were of every ethnicity," the presentment said. "Those cited (for wrongdoing) in the presentment understood what they were doing and were never victims."

  • The purchasing presentment
  • Released a month after the fire presentment, the grand jury said its review of city purchasing operations received similar, dismissive treatment - something they attribute in part to City Administrator George Kolb, who is heavily criticized in the latest presentment.

    Grand jurors say Mr. Kolb is guilty of bowing to commission pressure, saying he protected Purchasing Director Geri Sams after a 52-page grand jury presentment released in August blasted her for being incompetent and self-serving.

    "The administrator placed purchasing's problems everywhere but in purchasing," grand jurors wrote.

    Jurors attribute Mr. Kolb's inaction to commission pressure, saying that because he was "powerless to correct the problem, the administrator has to publicly justify inaction."

    Mr. Kolb declined to respond to the report's accusations until after he had reviewed its contents. He was in an Augusta Commission meeting Tuesday afternoon when the report was made public.

  • Commission interference
  • Continuing to lambaste Mr. Kolb, whom grand jurors describe as having an "inflexible attitude," they denounced him for being "intimidated by (a) commissioner's interference."

    Mr. Kolb said he will not comment on personnel issues.

    In their presentment, grand jurors cited a personnel review board case in which a public works supervisor had been accused of harassment and intimidation. The review board permitted the employee to continue working for the city even though he had a history of "uncooperative behavior" and had served 11 years of a life sentence for murder.

    "The Special Grand Jury learned through testimony that a commissioner (Lee Beard) contacted the administrator while he was considering the recommended punishment, and stated that the employee did not need to be fired, that something else could be worked out," the presentment states.

    Mr. Beard said he was still reading the report but commented that if the grand jury's accusations were true, Mr. Kolb "would do a lot of other things I ask him to do that he doesn't do now."

    As a new recommendation, grand jurors said they supported filling the city's equal employment officer position with an "an experienced, knowledgeable person ... for the protection of government employees."

    The position is currently being filled by a deputy administrator who grand jurors say is not impartial because he supervises some departments.

    "The EEO, a key and legally mandated office, should be funded and enthusiastically supported by putting a capable employee in this position."

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