Originally created 04/26/03

Judge ends work of special grand jury



A special grand jury investigation that began three years and five months ago and produced 10 presentments on the state of Augusta government quietly ended Friday afternoon after grand jurors were discharged from service by Superior Court Judge Albert M. Pickett.

Part of their work has been turned over to the state attorney general for review and possible prosecution.

The special grand jury's dismissal comes five months after it issued its final presentment, which served as a wrapup of nine earlier reports that attacked government structure and questioned the ethics of elected and appointed officials.

The reason jurors remained empaneled for so long after their final presentment, District Attorney Danny Craig wrote Friday in a news release, was to await the completion of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry.

That investigation arose from the special grand jury's look at Augusta's fire department under the tenure of former Chief Ronnie Few, Mr. Craig said.

In their 124-page presentment on the fire department, grand jurors said Chief Few operated his $14 million department with a total disregard for city policy and procedure. The presentment detailed what the special grand jury described as longstanding practices of unfair promotions, questionable payouts to favored employees and politically motivated leadership.

None of the other nine presentments appear to have been turned over to law enforcement for investigation, and Mr. Craig would offer no further comment.

Mr. Craig has the authority to pursue prosecution, but no indictments were issued as part of the special grand jury's discharge. He chose instead to recuse himself from the investigation, handing it over Thursday to the state's Office of the Attorney General, which said Friday it had not yet received the report.

"Our understanding is the file is on its way," spokesman Russ Willard said.

Mr. Willard said the office could appoint an assistant attorney general to the case or assign the case to a district attorney from another judicial circuit to "evaluate the case and take any prosecutorial action necessary."

In a cover letter to Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Mr. Craig wrote: "It is my opinion that the matter should be evaluated by your office or by your designee in order to preclude any suggestion that the prosecutorial decision could in any way be influenced by local political sentiment."

Augusta commissioners, including Marion Williams, are among those who have been highly critical of the special grand jury's work, accusing its members of being biased and of "character assassinations" against city employees and elected officials.

"If something was wrong, they should have exposed it," Mr. Williams said Friday. "But we can't continue to be a city that has a special grand jury that goes on and on and on."

TIMELINE

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

NOV. 12, 1999: Frustrated about the lack of time to investigate, outgoing members of a second grand jury call for the creation of a special grand jury to investigate 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.

AUG. 31, 2000: The first report finds no evidence of wrongdoing in the selection of Operations Management International as a contractor for the city's sewage treatment plants. It criticizes Augusta Commissioner Lee Beard's family business, radio station WRDW-AM, for entering a contract with OMI four days before the contract selection process began.

OCT. 2, 2000: The second report on the disbursement of county funds for indigent care to University Hospital derides city officials for not understanding the process whereby money is provided to pay for the medical costs of the poor and uninsured.

JAN. 12, 2001: The third and most scathing report yet targets Augusta commissioners, accusing them of divisiveness, incompetence and micromanagement.

FEB. 9, 2001: In the fourth report, grand jurors recommended random audits and more advanced security measures to prevent theft and embezzlement within the city's tax department.

MAY 1, 2001: In its fifth report, the special grand jury recommends that proposals be sought to correct the "patchwork quilt of retirement plans" for government employees.

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 sixth report 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.

JULY 9, 2002: In its seventh and most comprehensive report to date, a 124-page presentment on the city's fire department under the tenure of former Augusta Fire Chief Ronnie Few details longstanding practices of unfair promotions, questionable payouts to favored employees and politically motivated leadership.

AUG. 1, 2002: In its eighth presentment, grand jurors reported that the government's Link Deposit Loan Program benefited only the owners of two politically connected companies and cost the city more than $50,000 in lost interest payments.

AUG. 13, 2002: The ninth interim presentment accuses Augusta commissioners of "hijacking" the city's purchasing department by protecting its director and calls for the removal of Purchasing Director Geri Sams.

NOV. 19, 2002: The 10th and final presentment attacks government structure, questions officials' ethics and scolds the city administrator. The six-page report also said failed attempts by state and local leaders to improve city operations should empower Augusta residents to work toward stamping out government corruption.

THURSDAY: A report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, along with the special grand jury's presentment on Augusta's fire department, are handed over to state Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

FRIDAY: The special grand jury concludes its service and is discharged by Judge Pickett.

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