Originally created 09/30/03

Fired YDC guard sues state



The recent turmoil at the Augusta YDC has sparked yet another lawsuit against the state, this one claiming that a guard accused of giving cigarettes to boys in custody was set up because he backed an outspoken subordinate in her fight against the Juvenile Justice Department.

Larry Butts, a former captain at the Augusta Youth Development Campus, was fired in the midst of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's criminal probe of the YDC, which is officially still pending. Mr. Butts was one of six guards suspended at the start of the investigation in February, and one of four fired in June.

His suit names former Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez, Deputy Commissioner Michael Sorrells, former Deputy Commissioner Ronald Lane, former Regional Administrator Patrick Donaldson and former YDC acting Director Mitchell Sowell as defendants, accusing them of violating federal law by conspiring to retaliate against him and discriminating against him because he is black.

Mr. Butts is seeking an unspecified sum in punitive damages, damages for mental suffering, lost wages and attorney's fees.

According to the department, Mr. Butts was fired for giving cigarettes to children and told a boy his life would be in danger if he told on him.

Eventually, 300 jobs at the facility were eliminated when Juvenile Justice privatized the YDC in July, turning operations over to mental health care provider Unique Solutions. Mr. Martinez said boys' lives were in danger and cited the GBI's findings that YDC employees were exploiting inmates, selling them drugs and pornography and allowing them to assault one another in exchange for money.

The GBI released a synopsis of its case in July, saying that it was being dropped because of a lack of solid evidence.

Mr. Butts' lawsuit, which was filed two weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, says the department went after him because he helped Patricia Walker, a former officer who spoke publicly about conditions in the YDC. Mrs. Walker filed numerous grievances alleging race and gender discrimination and is suing the department, accusing it of retaliation.

"The stated reasons for Butts' termination are entirely untrue," the suit says.

In 2001, then-Capt. Butts and then-Sgt. Walker told an internal investigator that they believed Mr. Sowell had physically assaulted an officer in a racially motivated attack, the lawsuit says.

The department demoted Ms. Walker and moved her to the night shift against Mr. Butts' recommendation.

When Ms. Walker filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mr. Butts' testimony led to a finding in her favor, the suit says.

The lawsuit makes vague reference to retaliatory actions against Mr. Butts, including "proposed involuntary demotion," but does not elaborate.

In 2002, the department suspected Mr. Butts of leaking an incident report about an alleged rape to The Augusta Chronicle. A letter from Mr. Lane accused him of lying about his reasons for making a copy of the report.

Capt. Butts was demoted with a 5 percent pay cut. He later obtained written statements from other guards supporting his story - that he copied the report to review it with staff because he considered it poorly written. He was exonerated and restored to his rank and pay.

Mr. Butts would not comment on his lawsuit Monday and referred questions to his Atlanta attorney, David Ates, who is with the firm that represents Mrs. Walker in her suit.

Mr. Ates did not return two messages Monday.

Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers said the department does not comment on pending litigation and referred questions to the state attorney general's office.

Russell Willard, a spokesman for the office, said the allegations are being reviewed and the state is preparing its response.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.