Originally created 06/13/05

Corruption isn't always a federal case

Don't make a federal case of it, the saying goes.

But that often happens when it comes to political corruption in Georgia.

Former legislators Charles Walker and Robin Williams have been prosecuted under federal law. Both were convicted. And former state schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko faces trial later this year.

State Attorney General Thurbert Baker and others say the state should be able to deal more directly with officials who cheat taxpayers or abuse their offices.

"The feds have different priorities, different resources and different laws," said state Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah. "They might just not want to deal with some cases. It's not adequate for the state of Georgia to say, 'Let the feds clean up our mess.'"

As things stand now, it's hard for the state to go after major corruption cases "because we don't have all the tools to investigate it," Mr. Baker said.

For example, many political corruption cases unfold in two or more counties, but, under state law, grand juries may investigate matters only within a single county.

Mr. Baker's proposed solution: a statewide grand jury that can investigate political corruption anywhere in Georgia. Several other states - among them Florida and South Carolina - have similar bodies.

The idea has been kicked around for years and has been something of a political football. But - despite skepticism in some circles - momentum may be building for action.

Gov. Sonny Perdue and state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, are on board. So is Rep. Burke Day, the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.

"I'm all for it," the Tybee Island Republican said. "It's needed to have someone who can actively take an independent look at these things."

Mr. Bordeaux, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, supports the idea in principle. But he says he wants to monitor the details closely to prevent, for example, the use of such a body for political vendettas or "witch hunts."

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, is only lukewarm on the plan and wants any such scheme limited to public corruption cases.

Mr. Baker's staff has drafted a bill, but he held off on seeking a sponsor because he thought the governor would push his own measure. Mr. Perdue hasn't so far, although a group he appointed endorsed the idea.

Mr. Baker says the governor's support is critical.

"That's probably the best way to get something passed, as part of the governor's agenda," he said.

Mr. Johnson said he expects the Senate to consider a measure either for a statewide grand jury or one based on judicial circuits.

Democratic House leader DuBose Porter, of Dublin, says he hasn't focused on the issue yet.

"I'd be open to looking at anything that would help us do a better job of enforcing ethics in government," Mr. Porter said. "But I'd really need to know more about it and how the mechanism we have now is working and whether this would improve it."

State Sen. Regina Thomas said she has an open mind but seemed skeptical.

"There's too many questions right now. Who's going to pay for it? Who is going to appoint these people? How would it work? And I don't see anything wrong with the way it's done now."

Indeed, it likely wasn't the lack of a statewide grand jury that prevented the state from going after Mr. Walker. Most of the charges against the former senator involved violation of federal mail fraud laws, Mr. Baker said.

But Mr. Day sees the ability of a state grand jury to cooperate with federal officials as a strength, not a weakness.

"You could look at the state grand jury as the first line of offense," he said. "I think the rock-solid understanding should be that they still turn over anything major that might violate federal laws to the feds.

"But the role and focus of the FBI has been transformed since 9-11. ... They've got other things to do. The state grand jury would not only go a long way for Georgia but might take a burden off the FBI."

All were prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in federal courts:

Diana Harvey Johnson:The former Democratic state senator from Savannah was convicted in 1999 of funneling $80,000 in state grant money to her business.

Robin Williams: The former GOP state representative was convicted in May on 17 counts of conspiracy, bribery, theft, health care fraud and money laundering. Mr. Williams and four others were accused of stealing more than $2 million from a community mental health center.

Charles Walker: The former Democratic state senator was convicted earlier this month on 127 counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. The jury found that he that bilked advertisers of his weekly newspaper, cheated two public hospitals, used his campaign funds for personal reasons and stole from a charity sports event he founded.

Linda Schrenko: Former state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, a Republican, was indicted in November on charges that she stole more than $500,000 in taxpayer money. She is to be tried later this year.

- Morris News Service

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