Judge OKs ouster by city

A judge ruled Friday that Hephzibah city commissioners were within their rights to oust a member who pleaded guilty to theft charges.

Judge Neal W. Dickert issued his decision in the case of Peter Ciccio v. the city of Hephzibah.

Mr. Ciccio and his brother were both indicted on theft charges for buying stolen tractors in 2004. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced under the First Offender Act, a provision that allows a person to clear a criminal conviction if he successfully completes probation.

Judge Dickert agreed that technically the law did not require Mr. Ciccio's removal from public office because his plea was under the First Offender statute.

However, he agreed with the city's attorney, Victor Hawk, that Mr. Ciccio's fellow commissioners could correctly decide Mr. Ciccio violated the state's ethics code and remove him from office.

Mr. Ciccio was elected to the commission in November 2003. His fellow commissioners voted to remove him from office Nov. 20, 2006.

State law requires public officials to uphold the law.

"The commissioners argue that Mr. Ciccio was party to 'evasion of the law' by continuing to insist and proclaim innocence during the pendency of this (criminal) matter yet ultimately entering a guilty plea to felony theft by receiving," Judge Dickert wrote. "The public has placed trust in him to handle the affairs of the city of Hephzibah.

"If we are to allow officials to continue to serve in office after having admitted to the commission of a felony, there would be very little left of our code of ethics for government service or the public's confidence in our governmental institutions,'' the judge wrote.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.