Ex-director will get settlement

A former director of an Augusta mental health center should be paid the remainder of his settlement, a jury in U.S. District Court ruled Saturday.

The jury deliberated less than three hours before finding that F. Campbell Peery was owed $202,000 from a settlement he received when he left the Community Mental Health Center in May 2001. Mr. Peery had put $165,000 of the settlement into an insurance policy in the center's name for tax purposes, and that was later seized by the center and liquidated in May 2006. The center claims the settlement was achieved through fraud. The jury also awarded Mr. Peery interest since May 2006.

After the verdict, Mr. Peery turned to give a thumbs-up to his wife, Carolyn, who broke down in tears.

The Peerys feel like "walking from a heavy thunderstorm out into the sunshine" after having endured "obnoxious" allegations of wrongdoing during the trial, said lead attorney William F. Kaspers.

Chief Judge William T. Moore Jr. threw out the center's counterclaims accusing Mr. Peery of engaging in part of the fraud committed by former state Rep. Robin Williams and other former administrators at the center, who looted it of $1.2 million and were convicted in 2005.

Mr. Peery was not indicted and testified for the prosecution in that case, Mr. Kaspers noted. Mr. Peery also attempted to block actions of former Chief Operating Officer C. Michael Brockman and to dismiss former lobbyist Rick Camp, who were both convicted in the 2005 trial, he said.

"And this is his reward for it," Mr. Kaspers said in his closing argument. "(Mr. Peery) did everything he could to stand in the way of criminals."

Scott W. Kelly, representing the center's board, noted that former board Chairwoman Nancy Williamson questioned Mr. Peery in 2003 about how he got such a sizable settlement. He told her he came back to his office after being told he no longer had a job and "took documents, took evidence," Mr. Kelly said. "She thought blackmail. She thought what any reasonable person would have thought."

Mr. Peery said he was only retrieving his personal administrative files. Mr. Kelly noted that there is no mention of Mr. Peery's firing in board minutes during the meeting where it was supposedly done in executive session and that the settlement was approved by five of eight board members who were called individually to the center to sign a settlement, none of which would comply with the state Open Meetings Act.

The center, now called Serenity Behavioral Health Systems, will most likely not appeal, CEO Chuck Williamson said.

"It will be a significant hit, but I believe we have the greatest court system in the world," he said. "They rendered a verdict and we will abide by it. It's just good to have closure on the events of the past."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

CENTER FACING FURLOUGHS

Like many agencies in Georgia, Serenity Behavioral Health Systems is furloughing employees in order to meet its budget, "including me," CEO Chuck Williamson said.

Furloughing everyone except hourly employees -- about 300 of the 409 employees -- for two days each month should save about $80,000 a month, he said. Furloughs begin this month.

With state budget cuts, Medicaid cuts and rate changes, the center has lost about $900,000 this year, he said. More rate changes could cost between $400,000 and $1 million next fiscal year, he said.

"It's been one thing after another," Mr. Williamson said.

He plans to review the furloughs on a quarterly basis and reassess whether they are still needed.