Originally created 06/26/04

Scandals' impact on city is limited

ATLANTA - Having two of its former legislators under indictment shouldn't harm Augusta's ability to gain political influence at the Capitol, according to political insiders.

A federal grand jury in Savannah indicted former state Sen. Charles Walker on Wednesday on 142 counts of corruption, tax evasion and fraud. Another former Augusta legislator, Robin Williams, was indicted along with several lobbyists by a federal grand jury in Savannah on May 26. He faces 30 counts of stealing federal funds. No trial date has been set for either case, and both men maintain their innocence.

"I don't think it's reflective of Augusta-Richmond County," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "Atlanta's had its share of corruption in recent years. Coffee County's had its share. ... It's almost a good sign that it's both parties and both races. It shows that the system goes after both."

Mr. Williams is a white Republican, and Mr. Walker is a black Democrat.

Mr. Johnson and others say the remaining members of the Augusta delegation and statewide elected officials will continue to look out for the interests of Augusta residents.

"Augusta is uniquely blessed in that no matter who they send up there, they have been able to get something," said veteran lobbyist Neill Herring.

Former Democratic legislator Frank Eldridge Jr. agrees.

"Augusta has a lot of outstanding people, and the fact that there has been a couple of bad apples in the barrel will not affect the way people in the rest for the state look at and respond to the good people of Richmond County and Augusta," said Mr. Eldridge, now the secretary of the Senate.

People familiar with the Williams or the Walker cases speculate that each could lead to additional indictments of powerful people, which would have a bigger impact on the state than on Augusta, they say.

But for now, the voters in the heavily Democratic district where Mr. Walker is running for his old job have a tough choice, according to Mike Digby, professor of political science at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.

They could send Ed Tarver, a Democratic newcomer, or Sen. Don Cheeks, a veteran Republican.

Or they could choose Mr. Walker because they like his politics or want to send a message of protest, Mr. Digby said.

"Either way, the constituents are going to be the losers in this because they are going to have a damaged legislator even if he is able to fight through this and win his acquittal. There would be some damage to his prestige as a legislator," Mr. Digby said.

But electing Mr. Walker while he is indicted would mean his almost certain suspension from office until he is either exonerated or convicted, because Georgia law gives the governor the final say over whether an indicted lawmaker can serve in the General Assembly. Most observers believe that Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who often sparred with Mr. Walker when they were in the Senate together, would suspend the former Democratic leader.

Charles Walker: Former senator was indicted Wednesday on 142 counts of corruption, tax evasion and fraud.


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