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BOC extends time for Jeff Turner probe

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend to the Clayton County Civil Service Board that Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas be given as much time as possible to complete an ongoing, administrative investigation into the conduct of former Police Chief Jeff Turner.

Cohilas requested an extension of the four-week time frame originally allotted for the investigation, saying he needed more time to review new information provided by Turner during an interview with Turner last Wednesday.

On Jan. 5, the board voted unanimously to place Turner on unpaid administrative leave from his current job as director of the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy, for up to four weeks, while Cohilas conducted an internal investigation into Turner's use of an electronic tracking device owned by the police department.

On Tuesday, Cohilas asked the BOC to ask the Civil Service Board to extend the four-week deadline to allow for the consideration of "new information."

"Last week, certain documents have come to light, certain facts have been revealed that were an introduction of new things to consider," Cohilas told the board Tuesday. "I have not had the opportunity to properly vet that information ... In order to extend administrative relief beyond a four-week period, the Board of Commissioners must make a request to the Civil Service Board. I am asking and recommending that this board ask for an extension of the time, in order that a complete vetting of all the data that has come and been revealed thus far ... can be fairly and objectively evaluated."

He recommended a two-week extension, however, BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell recommended "that we give the chief the maximum time allowable by the Civil Service Board, rather than bringing it to just two weeks." The board voted unanimously to fulfill Bell's request. Cohilas said Turner would continue to be on unpaid administration leave while the investigation continues.

According to Turner's attorney, Keith Martin, Turner gave Cohilas a letter following an interview Cohilas conducted with Turner last Wednesday. "Cohilas asked for an interview, and he knew he had 28 days to complete this, so he asked for the interview 23 days out, and then interviewed Jeff for two hours," Martin said.

"Jeff provided him a letter the next day ... that is apparently the document that has come to light. The new information is just an explanation that we've been saying all along, but he has waited three-and-a-half weeks to ask him to come say anything."

Turner has maintained that he lent a piece of surveillance equipment to his wife, Darlene Turner, in order to test its battery life prior to using the equipment in an internal investigation.

On Tuesday, Turner said that last week's interview with Cohilas was the first time he was given a chance to review memos exchanged between Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson and Cohilas concerning the matter, as well as sworn statements by police officers within the department.

"There were a few issues that I wanted to clarify, and I wrote him a letter clarifying those one or two issues," Turner said. "In my opinion, they are not issues that are even involving him reviewing to find out if I violated civil service policy or departmental policy, which is the scope of the administrative investigation.

"Being the chief of police, [I] have the authority to have equipment from the county, which we carry home everyday," he continued. "Those policies should be simple. That letter should not hinder the investigation in terms of what it contains ... the facts are the same."

Turner said that since the investigation has started, he has used his accrued annual leave to avoid a loss in pay. He has two more weeks of annual leave, as of Tuesday, he said. Cohilas said Turner's annual leave time would be restored, if the results of the administrative investigation find him innocent of any wrong-doing.

In another matter before the board, the commissioners voted unanimously to amend county ordinances by removing the board as the body of appeal for matters dealing with business-license revocations. The board designated the Chief of Staff as the default hearing officer in such matters.

The amendment makes Cohilas the final point of administrative appeal for businesses challenging decisions of the Department of Community Development to revoke business licenses. The commissioners took this action even though it will make Cohilas both hearing officer and appeals officer. In other words, Cohilas, who is Interim Director of the Department of Community Development, is in charge of making decisions about revoking business licenses and, will also determine whether his own decisions on those licenses should be overturned.

In the amendment, the county added specific language concerning "rules of evidence" to be entered in an appeal hearing, and gave leeway to the board to appoint any other individual, in place of the Chief of Staff, to serve as a hearing officer.

According to Clayton County Police Department Legal Advisor Maj. Ken Green, the changes to the ordinances took place following the recent challenge of a business-license revocation by owners of "The Spot," a restaurant on Ga. Highway 85 in Jonesboro, that was the scene of two high-profile shooting incidents, in December of 2008, and April of last year.

"With the old agreement, the board [of commissioners] served as the board of appeal ... We're literally taking the board out of it," Green said. "You can image how difficult it is for them to meet, due to the time constraints of the commission. It's far easier for the county to appoint an appeal officer. If the person making the appeal is dissatisfied, they can make an appeal to the Superior Court.

"This will make the Chief of Staff the default appeal officer," he added. "The board does have the ability to appoint anyone."