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Juvenile Court pension issue surfacing

Judges were not made aware of spousal benefits

— An ongoing flap about a $50,494 reimbursement payment to District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson has raised questions about whether Clayton County has been meeting its obligations for pension fund payments in the past.

Clayton County Commissioner Gail Hambrick sought Tuesday to get her colleagues to ask Attorney General Sam Olens to review whether the commission’s June 27 decision to make the payment constituted an illegal gratuity. The request died after a 2-2 vote.

Hambrick and Commissioner Sonna Singleton voted for it. Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks voted against it. Hambrick and Singleton are among a group of current and former county officials Lawson’s office has been investigating for at least two years.

Turner said a review by Olens was not necessary because assurances had already been given that everything was legal and the issue was moot.

“No. 1, we already got a legal opinion from our legal advisor, and secondly we would never vote or even bring forward an issue that had the potential of being illegal,” said Turner.

The payment has brought to light an issue where Clayton County did not pay money it should have put into a spousal pension system run by the state’s Judicial Retirement System. So far, only judges who either were, or still are, Juvenile Court judges have come forward and said they were affected.

Hambrick said the payment raised questions from some residents.

“I’m getting so many inquiries from the residents that are saying ‘Why are we paying our tax dollars, which is really like an extra salary?’,” said Hambrick.

In a nutshell, Lawson’s husband, Ted, was eligible for a spousal pension through the state’s judicial retirement system from 1999 until 2008 when she was a Juvenile Court judge, but she wasn’t made aware of that fact at the time. The county was supposed to pay money into that pension fund, but it didn’t, so Lawson paid the retirement system for it out of her own pocket earlier this year.

The money she got last month was a reimbursement, she said.

“Techincally, it still hasn’t been made whole because they took taxes out of it, but I’m going to let that go,” said Lawson.

Since Lawson’s case came to light, Hambrick said two other Juvenile Court judges and their spouses have stepped forward and said they had the same issue that Lawson and her husband had. Judge Bobby D. Simmon’s wife, Linda, appeared before commissioners June 27 and told them the same thing happened to her and her husband.

Hambrick, herself, said the county should show equity.

“If we paid one then we need to pay them all,” said Hambrick.

Afterward, Hambrick said she was disappointed but not surprised by the outcome.

“Oh no, because it was expected,” said Hambrick.

Hambrick said she still wants the budget amendment reviewed, but it isn’t clear how that review will be performed. She said she’s contemplating whether she will go to Olens on her own to ask for a review.