By Joel Hall
Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell received a minor hand injury over the weekend while shooting a high-caliber handgun, during an annual Fourth of July party in Butts County.
The accident took place on the property of Jack Galardi, owner of Pink Pony South and other strip clubs in the metro Atlanta area. However accidental, opponents of Bell are trying to use the incident to put a smudge on his re-election campaign prior to the July 15 primary.
On Monday, the Clayton County Sheriff's office sent out a press release, in which Sheriff Victor Hill raised questions about Bell's presence at the party. The press release said, "Bell has a history of being associated with questionable individuals" and added that Bell once worked for Galardi as a security consultant.
Bell, originally from Butts County, said as a retired police officer in the mid-1990s, he once worked at a dance club owned by Galardi.
"I was working as a security consultant at one of his disco clubs to catch potential thieves," said Bell. "It wasn't an adult entertainment business. It was less than a month, and that was it," he added.
"I have no business relationship with Galardi," declared Bell. He said he was at Galardi's 500-acre Flovilla ranch "at the invitation of a friend." An annual event sponsored by Galardi, the Fourth of July party brought together nearly 800 people, which included adults, children, politicians, and a large number of police officers, Bell said.
Aubrey Villines, a lawyer for Galardi, said the Annual Fourth of July Celebration is a family-friendly event Galardi has hosted for more than 10 years. He said Bell "was probably on a generic list of politicians who were invited" and "was not the only politician there."
"I've been going down there and bringing my kids before I was ever affiliated with Galardi," said Villines. "It's geared, first and foremost, for children and seniors. They have pony rides, they have a petting zoo, they have two fishing lakes. It's totally a family outing. There is no alcohol sold or served there."
Bell's injury took place at a firing range on a separate part of Galardi's property. Villines said he brought his .22-caliber Hornet to fire at the range. It was secure and supervised by a range master, he said.
Villines said Bell fired a .50-caliber, Smith and Wesson Magnum, a gun which he said he avoided.
"Anytime that you have to shoot a handgun with two hands, it's one hand too many," said Villines. "It's a big gun with a lot of recoil."
Villines said the percussion from the gun "split the top of his thumb," but he described Bell's injury as "miniscule."
"I tried it and I got my thumb too close to the flash of the gun, not bullet," said Bell, denying rumors that he shot himself. "It was almost like a blast. It injured the last joint of my finger ... no bone damage."
On the advice of his doctor, Bell went to Crawford Long Hospital on Saturday, where he received several stitches. Bell said, "I have not missed a day of work, nor do I intend to.
"It's not painful, it's not swollen," said Bell on Tuesday. "All of my doctors said that it looks like it's healing OK. The top of my finger is going to look a little ugly, but that's it. In my view and of the people down there, it was an accident."
Bell's weekend injury is not the first incident to bring attention to him prior to an election. On April 7, 2004, prior to his original run for BOC chairman, Bell was charged with a misdemeanor count of battery after Daphne Michelle Wynn, a waitress at the time, accused him of sucking her neck during a visit to The Feed Store Restaurant in College Park.
Wynn, who did not know Bell other than having served him one other time at The Feed Store, said in her testimony that Bell "hugged me and pulled me toward him and sucked my neck. I pushed him away and said, 'Hey, don't do that!'"
Steve Frey, one of Bell's lawyers on the case, said the matter "has been dismissed, and there are no pending charges."
"We took the stance from the very beginning that the case had no merit," said Frey.
"That turned out to be political and nothing," said Bell. "I was not guilty of anything then ... I am not guilty of anything now. This is a political season and people are going to be using this and anything else to try to affect my campaign."
Bell said he is not taking his gun injury too seriously and plans to focus on his campaign. "All I am doing with this storm is saying, 'thumbs up for Clayton County' and trying to laugh it off," he said.