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DA: BOC resolution could constitute a felony

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Three Clayton County commissioners may have committed a felony Tuesday when they passed a resolution to prevent county attorneys from testifying before a grand jury that is investigating the county's finance director, according to District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.

Lawson is seeking an indictment of the county's finance director, Angela Jackson, on four felony counts of "Avoid a Public Record," and one misdemeanor count of allegedly violating the state's records retention law.

Jackson is accused, by two Rex residents, of shredding commissioners' cell phone records the two asked for through an open records request.

The commission voted earlier this week to approve a resolution which said the commission would not waive attorney-client privilege for conversations that took place among Jackson, County Attorney Michael Smith, and Staff Attorney Christie Cross-Barnes. Commission Secretary Shelby Haywood said the measure was approved by a 3-1 vote.

Possible sanctions would be aimed at Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, and Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick, who voted to approve the resolution, according to Lawson. The commission's resolution states that Smith and Cross-Barnes have been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury on the matter.

Lawson said the commission's approval of the resolution could interfere with the grand jury's investigation of Jackson. "It could be construed as interfering with a witness, which is a felony," the district attorney said.

Lawson said the commission may have also violated Georgia's open meetings law by adding the resolution, and another resolution dealing with Jackson, to the agenda -- after the agenda was already posted for members of the public to see.

The second resolution declared that Jackson's policy of shredding phone records, except for the invoice page, complied with a 2005 county ordinance that deals with records-keeping.

Lawson said the resolutions were introduced during a commission pre-meeting, held just an hour before the commission's business meeting, and then added to the agenda during the business meeting. "The citizens had no notice, and I didn't have it to read it before the [pre-meeting]," Lawson said.

The district attorney said she objected to the resolutions during the pre-meeting, and warned commissioners that they risked violating state laws if they added the two items to the business meeting agenda, and then adopted them.

Ralph said he introduced the resolutions on the advice of the county's litigation attorney, Jack Hancock. "Our litigation attorney ... advised us that this was something we should do," Ralph said.

Ralph and Singleton referred all further questions about the matter to Hancock, who could not be reached for comment. Hambrick could not be reached for comment, either.

Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell voted against both resolutions, and Commissioner Michael Edmondson did not attend the meeting, according to Haywood.

Bell, in a written statement released Wednesday, said he voted against the resolutions because he had not had a chance to assess them and their implications, and because other commissioners did not clarify their emergency when introducing the resolutions. He said he believed the commission might be overstepping its boundary.

"I voted against the resolutions, because I felt that it was tantamount to interfering with the judicial process," Bell explained. The commission chairman also said the way in which the resolutions were presented went against the commission's own rules.

"To present a resolution in the manner in which it was presented on Tuesday evening, March 15, 2011, was [a] violation against the county's Board of Commissioners' rules," said Bell, in his statement. "My understanding of the rule that I am referencing is that it must be an emergency situation"

The chairman said an example of such an emergency would be a case where Clayton County residents would be "underserved" if the commission did not act quickly. "My request to Mr. Ralph was, 'Is this an emergency?' [and] Mr. Ralph replied, 'yes,'" Bell added. "I received no further explanation from Mr. Ralph."

Lawson declined to say if she is planning to file charges against the three commissioners who voted in favor of the resolution.

"I am seeking legal counsel on how to handle this very unusual situation," she said. She declined to say from whom she was seeking legal advice.