The governor's office and the Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney said Monday that they will look into allegations that Jenkins County Sheriff Bobby Womack has been using his jail inmates as personal laborers.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Womack, 69, admitted paying inmates to work for him in an interview with an Augusta television station, but said it was not for personal gain.
In his often self-contradictory statements, he said what he did was neither wrong nor illegal. He said sometimes he feels sorry for accused criminals and lets them go home to see their families or work for him for pocket money.
"Sometimes, the sheriff has the authority to do what he thinks is best," Sheriff Womack told WJBF News (Channel 6). "I have used them, but it's never been a matter of a long time period. It's always been under my supervision."
Shane Hix, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the governor's chief attorney, Harold Melton, had just seen Sunday's story in The Augusta Chronicle, in which 31 former Jenkins County jail inmates and two former Jenkins County deputies confirmed that Sheriff Womack has used jail labor for his timber company, at his rental properties and at his personal home.
Under Georgia law, it's considered a violation of oath of office - a felony punishable by up to five years in prison - each time a sheriff uses inmate labor for personal gain.
Mr. Hix said Mr. Melton will seek to determine whether the governor should launch a state investigation of the sheriff. In a process laid out in state law, the governor can direct two sheriffs and the Attorney General's Office to investigate, suspend a sheriff for up to 60 days, request the district attorney to file a removal petition and bring in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Richard Mallard, district attorney for the Ogeechee Circuit, which includes Jenkins County, said Monday that he hadn't read The Chronicle's article. He said he would have to look into the allegations before requesting an investigation by the GBI.
He said he has never received information that Sheriff Womack was using inmate labor illegally.
"I'm not going to comment on the record on a bunch of allegations," Mr. Mallard said. "I'll look at it, and we're going to look into it. I'm going to do my job."
A former Millen police officer said he told the GBI about the sheriff's use of inmates in 2000. A former Jenkins County deputy also said he told Mr. Mallard's predecessor, Joe Martin, before the sheriff fired him in 1999. The GBI said it had no record of talking to the police officer, and Mr. Martin denied having that conversation with the deputy.
The two former lawmen and several inmates said that what the sheriff was doing was common knowledge around Millen and Jenkins County.
Jenkins County Commissioner Domingo Green said a lot of people, himself included, feared reporting the sheriff to authorities because they thought he might find out.
Mr. Green, 76, said an inmate and another inmate's mother told him that the sheriff was using them to work in the woods. The inmate Mr. Green spoke to verified to The Chronicle that he ran a chain saw for the sheriff's logging crew while he was incarcerated at the Jenkins County jail during the mid-1990s.
Mr. Green said he believes other commissioners knew about it, too.
"They knew as much about it as I did. Sure they were aware," Mr. Green said. "Ain't nothing a violation here. Whatever a man does, that's what he does, and as far as he's concerned, it's right. Nobody challenges him."
But Commissioner Charles Burke, 72, said he didn't know anything about the sheriff putting inmates to work for him.
"Well, it didn't get back to me," Mr. Burke said. "No inmates ever came to the board of commissioners complaining."
A message left for the other three commissioners, J.C. Douglas, Woodrow Wilson and Chairman James Henry, was returned by County Attorney Troy Gay, who asked a reporter not to contact commissioners and declined to comment on the sheriff.
In the television interview Monday, Sheriff Womack admitted that he once put an inmate to work as a sheriff's dispatcher. He also said that if an inmate escaped, he might use other inmates to help hunt him down.
Sheriff Womack said he is prepared to fight any criminal investigation launched against him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I'm going to fight it if it comes up," the sheriff said. "I mean, I'm not gong to sit back in my chair and not fight."
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