Already under scrutiny by state investigators, Jenkins County Sheriff Bobby Womack could soon be the subject of an FBI probe.
The federal agency is considering launching its own investigation into the sheriff's use of inmate labor.
"The FBI is attempting to determine if there were any violations of federal law," Ed Reinhold, supervising agent of the Augusta FBI office, said Thursday.
In recent weeks, federal agents have been tagging along on interviews with agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which began investigating Sheriff Womack last month.
Agent Reinhold said the bureau is researching, among other things, whether the sheriff's alleged actions - habitually using county inmates to work for his logging company, to work at his rental properties and to do chores at his home - violate a federal law against involuntary servitude. The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
A May 23 story in The Augusta Chronicle reported that 31 of 48 probationers, parolees, state prisoners and ex-cons contacted by the newspaper during a two-month period said they either did work for the sheriff while being held in his jail or had direct knowledge of the sheriff's activities.
Their accounts date back to 1990. Among other work, former inmates said they laid sod at the sheriff's home, patched up holes in sheetrock at his rental trailers and ran chain saws and heavy equipment for his log crews. Some said they were paid paltry sums in cash; some said they were paid fair wages in cash; some said they worked in exchange for weekend leave from the jail; and others said they earned only fresh air and sunshine.
While none said they were forced to work, the men said they felt they had little choice but to do the sheriff's bidding.
A sheriff using his inmates for personal work could constitute several violations of state law, including violation of oath of office, using inmate labor for personal gain, racketeering, and conspiring in an escape in cases in which convicted felons were allowed to leave the jail unsupervised.
Labor laws and federal and state income tax laws could also come into play.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is not investigating the matter because no former inmates have lodged complaints, and the labor department can't act on a third-party report, such as a newspaper article, said Atlanta-based regional administrator John McKeon.
"If any of them (former Jenkins County inmates) want to talk to us, we'll look at it," Mr. McKeon said.
Three days after The Chronicle's story was published, the GBI began investigating Sheriff Womack at the request of Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard. Gov. Sonny Perdue has authority to prompt a separate investigation by two Georgia sheriffs and the Attorney General's Office, but he has opted to let local authorities handle the case.
Sheriff Womack, 69, did not return a call left at the department Thursday. In a May 24 interview with WJBF News (Channel 6), he admitted allowing inmates to work for him but said that he felt sorry for them and that it was not for personal gain.
Former Jenkins County Deputy James Chesser said he doubts anything will come of the GBI investigation. In the late 1990s, Mr. Chesser gave information to both the GBI and former Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Joe Martin about the sheriff, but no action was taken.
He said about three weeks ago he was interviewed by a GBI agent with an FBI agent in tow.
"Personally, I don't think nothing will happen," Mr. Chesser said. "I just think it will be shut up like it was before, and they'll let it die down like they did before."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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