Four guilty of ballot tampering
• State administrative law judge rules that four are guilty of tampering with absentee ballots in a 2002 runoff election
By Ben Nelms
A state administrative law judge found two elected officials in Jefferson County and the wife of a Jefferson County school board member guilty of tampering with absentee ballots in the 2002 runoff election for the District 1 school board seat. In her June 15 decision, Judge Catherine T. Crawford found four of the respondents, Wadley City Council member Albert Samples, Jefferson County Commissioner Gonice Davis, his wife Annie Davis and Yvette Hatcher, wife of Jefferson County School Board member Donald Hatcher, all guilty of a felony after violating Georgia state law 21-2-574.
Judge Crawford, representing the Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings, conducted the hearing based on the Georgia Elections Division's charges against the respondents to determine whether they had violated state election laws relating to the 2002 District 1 school board runoff election. The charges were filed against seven individuals by the Elections Board following an investigation of the election. In her decision, Crawford said the four were "found to have violated the law regarding elections and it is recommended that each be ordered to cease and desist from committing further violations and to pay a civil penalty of $100 each." The remaining three respondents charged in the case, Robbie Lee Carswell, Shirley Samples and Tanzie McBride, were found innocent of the charges. The state Elections Board will decide July 7 whether to accept or reject Crawford's decision.
Commissioner Gonice Davis, speaking for himself and his wife, said Tuesday he would make a statement after the elections Board makes its decision. Attempts to contact Samples and Hatcher at their residences over the past several days were unsuccessful.
A first of its kind hearing was held April 27 in the courthouse in Louisville as the seven south Jefferson County residents faced civil charges relating to absentee ballots cast in the 2002 school board runoff election for the District 1 seat. All were charged with a felony violation of state law 21-2-385 and 21-2-574, in that "prior to the (Sept. 10, 2002) runoff election they had in their possession an official absentee ballot while not in the polling place and without authorization to possess the official absentee ballot outside the polling place." The runoff contest resulted in the election of candidate Donald Hatcher to the Jefferson County School Board.
All respondents were present in the courtroom except Gonice Davis and Annie Davis. After questioning the stance of those present on the matters asserted in the case, Judge Crawford determined that all five denied violating state law and proceeded with the hearing. Judge Crawford said Gonice and Annie Davis were in default due to their absence in court and could not contest the allegations since they did not attend the hearing.
The Secretary of State's office was represented at the April 27 hearing by attorney Catherine Allen. The state Elections Division was represented by Investigator John Adams.
Allen called 11 witnesses, including eight Wadley residents, one current and one former US Postal Service employee and investigator Adams. Several of the Wadley witnesses said a respondent either brought an absentee ballot to them at their residence or took it with them to mail later. Other witnesses said they did not recall those events occurring. The current postal service employee said Albert Samples had delivered more than 50 absentee ballots to the Louisville Post Office during the 2002 runoff election period while the former postal clerk said she or a co-worker had taken 17 or more absentee ballots from him on three or four occasions. Samples questioned the former clerk's testimony later in the hearing, stating that she had been fired for fraud.
Elections Division Investigator Adams said he found that respondents had assisted close to 100 people but had violated the law by having possession of some of the ballots. The criteria for furnishing an absentee ballot or removing it to be mailed had not been met, he said. Adams said he was confident that his findings were accurate, both in the statements provided by witnesses and in the manner in which the investigation was conducted. In investigations of this type the occurrence of any person assisting more than two or three people often points to a potential violation, Adams said. In this specific case all witnesses initially reported that respondents had taken possession of their absentee ballots and mailed them, he added.
Albert Samples and, to a lesser extent, Yvette Hatcher were virtually the only two respondents who asked questions or offered more than minimal statements during the hearing.
In the hearing Samples said any unlawful actions on his part would have been unwitting. Along with Hatcher, he questioned whether the investigation and subsequent charges were a result of bias on the part of the investigator.
"I'm not denying doing something wrong, unknowingly. I'm denying doing anything I thought was wrong," said Samples. "It seems to me this case is biased. If (Adams) was any kind of investigator, he would not have investigated only one side."
Samples contended that while he did not deny mailing a few absentee ballots in the past he would not do so now because he understood it was against the law. He also made reference on several occasions that his handling of absentee ballots related to the July 2002 primary election and not to the runoff election in September.
Samples said the evidence presented was not sufficient to find the respondents guilty. This was especially true given that some of the witnesses changed their stories in court, he said. Hatcher maintained that the evidence showed that respondents were unaware of the law. If a violation did occur it would constitute hearsay and would amount to the witnesses' word against theirs, she said. Echoing an earlier statement by McBride, Hatcher stated that she had not been informed about the charges against her until she arrived in court April 27.
Children exposed to chemicals
By Ben Nelms
Two Swainsboro girls remain in critical condition and on artificial ventilation at MCG Hospital after being exposed to what was believed to be an agricultural chemical at the home of their grandparents near Wadley.
The incident began when the three year-old girl was taken to a physician in Louisville Friday after falling ill the day before. With little information to go on, the girl's mother was told her daughter might have a stomach virus, according to a spokesperson for the sheriff's office. Her return to her grandparents' home was short-lived once her four year-old sister began to manifest similar symptoms.
Both girls were taken to Jefferson Hospital's emergency room mid-afternoon Friday, where their conditions quickly worsened, investigators said. Their deteriorating condition led to their transport to MCG by helicopter later on Friday, while their 18 month-old brother, who also began to manifest similar but less severe symptoms, was transported by vehicle.
Though the 18 month-old was treated and released from MCG, the little girls remain in critical condition and on artificial ventilation in the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit since their admission in the middle of the night Friday, investigators said. Doctors at MCG were initially unable to determine if the children's condition was due to a virus or some other cause, investigators said.
Following standard protocol, investigators were contacted to attempt to help determine what might have been responsible for the sudden and life threatening conditions the children faced.
Speaking with the girls' seven year-old sister, also visiting at the Wadley home of their grandparents, investigators learned that the two little girls had been playing with a handheld sprayer located in a utility building on the property.
The investigator said the seven year-old showed him the sprayer. Sitting near the sprayer was a jug of cotton defoliant. The children's grandfather subsequently identified the contents of the sprayer as likely being the chemical, investigators said. A copy of the label on the container was made and faxed to physicians at MCG.
State Environmental Health Specialist III Belinda Sheram advised parents and caregivers to be aware of any potential hazards that could put children at risk.
"It is very important to have all poisonous substances locked up and stored securely away from children," said Sheram. "The toll-free Poison Control number in the phone book should be called promptly if a child comes in contact with any type of poison."
County raises millage rate .95 mills, school's rate steady
By Ben Nelms
The 2004-2005 tentative millage rates set by Jefferson County commissioners and Jefferson County School Board earlier this week were a mixed bag, with commissioners increasing the rate and the school board decreasing it.
Jefferson County commissioners met June 29 where they approved a tentative FY 2004-2005 millage rate of 13.64, a .95 mill increase over last year. The increase was attributed to both new and increasing costs associated with county government operations. The increase is the first by county commissioners in four years. The county millage rate includes .75 mills dedicated to the Development Authority of Jefferson County.
Jefferson County School Board met June 28, voting to decrease the millage rate from 13.88 to a tentative rate of 13.84 mills for the 2004-2005 Fiscal Year. No public hearings will be required because the rate did not increase, even though property tax revenues will increase by an estimated $20,000 for the period. The increase is due to a slight increase in the county's worth, said Superintendent Carl Bethune.
If ongoing cuts to public education by the General Assembly continue this year, the board will be faced to make up the difference by cutting into school system reserves, said Bethune.
Commissioners said the millage increase is due to environmental mitigation at the old landfill, new law enforcement center costs, increases in liability and workers comp rates and the continuing increases in gasoline and energy-related products.
The first hearing on the county millage rate will be held July 9 at 8:30 a.m.
The second hearing will be held July 14 at 6 p.m. and the third on July 23 at 8:30 a.m. All hearings will be held at the commission office in Louisville