By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners placed Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy Director Jeff Turner on unpaid leave on Tuesday, pending an administrative investigation into new accusations that the former county police chief improperly used police surveillance equipment.
According to Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker has been asked to determine whether criminal charges may apply. She said Turner could face more than 25 years in prison if prosecuted and convicted.
Following a closed-door executive session, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to place Turner on unpaid administrative leave for up to four weeks while Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas conducts an internal investigation into Turner's use of an electronic tracking device owned by the police department. The board also voted unanimously to appoint Capt. Rebecca Hollingsworth, Turner's second-in-command at the law enforcement academy, to serve in Turner's place while the investigation takes place.
"I will conduct a normal investigation into allegations of employee conduct, to see if any civil service rules have been violated," Cohilas said Tuesday night. "Civil service rules allow up to four weeks for the investigation to be completed. At the end of the investigation, the board will consider the findings."
Cohilas said that on Dec. 29, he received a copy of an "internal memorandum" from the police department with the sworn statements of several police officers. According to Cohilas, the statements implied that Turner had improperly used a "bird dog," a device capable of tracking the movement of vehicles, and relaying that movement to a laptop or desktop computer.
During Tuesday's meeting, Cohilas publicly read a memo he wrote to Lawson on Dec. 31, requesting the district attorney "conduct the appropriate investigation in order to determine whether or not the former Police Chief's actions constitute illegal activity."
"The memorandum and written statements [of several police officers] indicate that former Chief of Police Jeffrey E. Turner, in October of 2009, ordered an electronic tracking device and monitoring software removed from the narcotics unit and brought to his office," Cohilas wrote in the memo to Lawson. "From there, it appears Mr. Turner took the device from his former office and utilized it, in what may well be, an illegal surveillance of a citizen. On December 29, 2009, he attempted to return the device without anyone discovering that he had used the device for personal reasons. Mr. Turner allegedly attempted to influence a special agent into erasing data from the device which would incriminate him."
Cohilas also read aloud a Dec. 31 response from Lawson in which the district attorney stated, "Based on the information provided in those memorandums and affidavits, I find that they form the factual basis to request an investigation be conducted to determine if Turner violated the criminal laws of the State of Georgia," in regard to "theft by taking," "stealing, altering, etc. of public documents," "violation of oath by public officer," and "unlawful eavesdropping and surveillance."
On Tuesday, Lawson said she had secured relevant evidence from the police department, but had written a letter to the attorney general requesting that a special prosecutor be assigned to investigate the incident.
"After we reviewed it [the information from Cohilas], I felt strongly that an investigation by my office would not be prudent due to the code of ethics and the law," Lawson said. "I've turned it over to Thurbert Baker to assign a prosecutor and to see whether or not prosecution for violation of criminal law is warranted."
Turner's attorney, Keith Martin, said that in October, Turner was in the process of an internal investigation of possible "illegal activity" among police officers in the department, in which the bird dog would be used to track the movements of certain police cars.
Martin said that in order to test the battery life of the device, Turner gave the device to his wife, who temporarily kept the device in the glove compartment of her car.
"Before he put it on other people's cars, he wanted to see what the life expectancy [of the battery] was," Martin said. "His wife put it in the glove compartment of her car. I don't know where they think the crime is. He was not trying to bird dog his wife. She knew all about it. He turned all of his things into the police department and took the bird dog back to narcotics where he got it."
Martin said Turner turned in the tracking device to the narcotics building last week, on the same day he returned his keys, police vehicle, uniforms, and other items to Cohilas.
Lawson said "there was no warrant issued by a superior court judge" for the device to be used and as such, she did not "believe it was used for approved police business." She said the district attorney's office will hold onto the police officers' sworn affidavits, the bird dog, the desktop and laptop onto which information was downloaded, and inter-office memos until they are requested by the attorney general's office.
Martin said he welcomes an investigation from the attorney general.
"They want an impartial investigation," Martin said. "We join them in that. Nobody could be happier that this is going to the attorney general than Jeff Turner."
Through a spokesperson, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell released a brief statement after the meeting Tuesday.
"The allegations presented to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday evening are very serious," the statement said. "However, it is imperative that we allow the process to work."
Turner said he believes the latest accusations are nothing more than personal attacks.
"It should be abundantly clear to all the citizens of Clayton County that this is an attack on my personal character," Turner said Tuesday. "At the conclusion of this investigation, I will be vindicated."