Allegations that Screven County Sheriff Mike Kile used inmate labor for personal and political gain have piqued the interest of the FBI and prompted the county to ask the local district attorney to investigate.
"We're certainly going to look at this one," said Ed Reinhold, the supervising agent of the Augusta FBI office.
Hubert Reeves, the county's attorney, said Monday that Screven County Manager Rick Jordan asked the Ogeechee Circuit district attorney's office to look into the matter. District Attorney Richard Mallard, who has to make a formal request to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation before it will look into the allegations, did not return a phone call to his office.
A report Sunday in The Augusta Chronicle quoted former Screven County jail inmates and former deputies who said Sheriff Kile put inmates to work at his home, on his campaign signs and as handymen for his deputies. Sheriff Kile also has allowed inmates to work at churches and on other private property.
The practice is a violation of state law and abuse of inmates' civil rights, the article said. The newspaper also published photos showing an inmate working on a campaign sign, an inmate washing a former jailer's PT Cruiser and inmates shelling peanuts for a Screven County Booster Club barbecue being held on church property.
Agent Reinhold said a formal FBI investigation has not been opened but one is likely. He said the focus would probably be along the same lines as the ongoing investigation of former Jenkins County Sheriff Bobby Womack, which involves violations of civil rights and a federal law against involuntary servitude.
The investigation of Mr. Womack was prompted by another article in The Chronicle, published in May. Mr. Womack, who resigned in July citing health problems, was accused of using inmates as laborers for his lumber company, at his rental properties and at his residence.
Screven and Jenkins are neighboring counties and comprise two of the four counties in Mr. Mallard's district. Last week, Mr. Mallard said he would look into Sheriff Kile if he feels it's warranted.
Gov. Sonny Perdue, who as governor can call for an investigation of the sheriff that could lead to suspension and possible removal from office, fumed when a reporter asked him about the issue during his visit to Hephzibah High School on Monday. A Perdue spokeswoman later said his office was not yet aware of the allegations.
"It's sad to me that our media won't allow us to celebrate the success of students and want to pick at questions that make a black mark against the state," Mr. Perdue said.
Sheriff Kile, 57, did not return two messages left at his office Monday. However, in an interview with a Savannah television station he denied that the work on churches and private property was illegal, said he had been using the labor for 12 years under advice from his attorney and questioned whether the charges were politically motivated.
According to WTOC, Sheriff Kile said that inmates are paid a minimum of $10 per hour out of a discretionary fund and that the money is given to inmates' families or used to pay fines.
"We think it's a good public service they do," the sheriff said.
He did not address the work at his home, on his campaign signs or for his deputies.
Inmates interviewed by The Chronicle said they typically weren't paid to work at churches, unless parishioners slipped them small amounts of cash. Regardless, legal experts quoted in Sunday's article agreed the use of county inmates on private property is illegal, and putting them to work for churches violates the state constitution.
Staff Writer Greg Rickabaugh contributed to this article.
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