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Georgia Parole Corruption Deepens

A trail of corruption, greed, and cronyism has led to the indictment of a Georgia senator, the dismissal of an assistant attorney general and the resignation of six parole board members including the director and the chairman.

Van Streat was suspended from his office as state senator after he tried to have convicted murderer Ronald Gaither moved to a less secure prison facility in exchange for campaign funds. On January 8, 2002 Streat was indicted for violating his oath of office and lying about his attempt to pressure the board to relocate the state prisoner. Gaither had already escaped from prison on two previous occasions.

Streat's suspension was the first drop from the menacing storm clouds that had gathered over the parole board. Assistant Corrections Commissioner Joe Ferrero says that board Chairman Walter Ray and board member Bobby Whitworth came to his office on August 10, 1999 to support Streat's request.

Ominous thunderheads first began to gather in July 2001 when Whitworth and Ray were accused of accepting thousands of dollars for lobbying on behalf of private prison interests. The torrent that followed submerged the board in a flood of scandal and corruption.

Money Trail

For over three years Whitworth earned $3,000 a month as a paid consultant for the Bobby Ross Group, a Texas-based private prison company. BRG specializes in juvenile offenders and has facilities nationwide. Whitworth earned nearly $200,000 in his four years as a BRG consultant. He is currently being investigated for a $100,000 payment he received from the firm.

Whitworth's dealings with his close friend Lanson Newsome are also being investigated. In 2000, Georgia contracted with Newsome's company, Detention Management Services Inc., to supervise misdemeanor probationers. Whitworth admitted that he and Ray earned $86,000 from DMS over three years. Newsome made $8 million when he eventually sold the company.

Whitworth and Ray admit supporting the bill that led to the contract with DMS but both men deny lobbying for its passage. However, Whitworth received $75,000 from Newsome less than a week after the bill passed in the House and the day before it passed in the Senate. Newsome claims that the timing of the payment was coincidental. "It had nothing to do with that bill," he said.

When news about the money broke in the media Ray broke into song. The chairman publicly admitted that he had received $24,500 from Newsome over a four year period. Whitworth also admitted receiving the $751,000 payment. The deal was for the pair to provide clients for DMS.

Both Ray and Whitworth argue that there was no conflict of interest because probation has no direct bearing on their jobs as parole officers. Both point to a law drafted in 1997 that allows parole officers to take on second jobs where there is no conflict of interest.

Former Attorney General Mike Bowers pointed out, however, that it was Whitworth who pushed that law through. Bowers, who is a member of former governor Roy Barnes' law firm, said that Whitworth had begun accepting $1,000 a month payments from Newsome and $3,000 a month from BRG in 1996, well before the law was passed.

Whistle Blowers

Just before their demise Whitworth and Ray were pushing a proposal that would combine probation and parole. The merger would have meant a massive windfall for private agencies and of course their consultants. But old ghosts were coming back to haunt the dynamic duo.

Lisa Phillips Thompson served for six years as the legislative liaison for the Georgia Parole Board. She is also the wife of Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Powder Springs). The senator was Gov. Barnes' senate floor leader and the two are childhood friends. The Thompsons and Barneses are so close that the couples often spend Christmas Eve together.

During the 2000 legislative session Ms. Thompson was approached by Whitworth and Ray and asked to support a bill for the privatization of misdemeanor probationers. Initially she supported the bill and put her considerable influence behind it. The bill appeared to be an effective pressure valve for alleviating prison overcrowding and was purportedly designed to reduce caseloads for probation officers. It also had the approval of the entire 5-member parole board.

Thompson personally organized a luncheon where Ray and Whitworth actively lobbied the state senators for their support. Sen. Carol Jackson (D-Cleveland) sponsored the bill which passed with virtually unanimous support.

In the back of her mind, however, Thompson was bothered by the enthusiasm with which Ray and Whitworth were pushing the bill since probation had nothing to do with parole. It was only after the bill had passed that Thompson realized that she had been used. She learned that Whitworth and Ray were on Newsome's payroll and that passage of the bill opened up sizeable markets to Newsome's company.

Furious about being deceived, Thompson confronted the two men. That's when Ray tried to use his position as parole board chairman to have Thompson fired. Thompson went to her friend Gov. Barnes.

When Thompson voiced her indignation to the media, Chuck Topetzes, chairman of the parole division, removed her from her position. In August 10, 2002 Thompson announced on TV that Topetzes and other board members were "being disloyal to the Barnes administration." The accusation prompted an immediate investigation by the Geogia Bureau of Investigation. Thompson brought suit against the board and retired as part of the settlement.

Finger Pointing

Parole spokeswoman Kathy Browning maintained that the Corrections Department was equally active in the passage of the bill which has tainted the Georgia Parole Board. But Corrections Chief Jim Wetherington says that while his department did not oppose the bill "we did not draft it."

Sen. Greg Hecht (D-Morrow) agreed. He said it was the parole board that sponsored the bill, not the Corrections Department. Hecht was the senator originally approached by Ray and other members of the parole staff who asked him to sponsor the bill. Hecht declined, citing a conflict of interest with his position as chairman of the committee overseeing Corrections. He recommended Sen. Jackson for the task.

Close scrutiny revealed that in early 2000 Whitworth enlisted parole board attorney Tracy Masters to draft the bill. Whitworth guided Masters to a former member of the Corrections staff who had experience in drafting legislation.

"I initiated the call because Bobby Whitworth asked me to draft [the] bill," Masters said.

Scandal No Problem

Whitworth has shielded himself against scandal so well throughout his career he could easily be called a Clinton. He started his career in the Farm Service Division and quickly worked his way up to Chief of Corrections. In 1993 he was forced out of that job because of his poor handling of a sex scandal involving female prisoners. However, Zell Miller, who was governor at the time, immediately appointed Whitworth to the parole board. Miller, who is now a U.S. senator says, "Bobby Whitworth had the knowledge and the ability that no one else had to figure out future prison space accurately."

Whitworth's career reflects the upwardly mobile ambition of a man driven to succeed. While he is described by some as a man with an easy smile and a friendly nature, his critics insist there is an underlying ruthlessness to his laid-back country style. Some detractors have compared him to a godfather always ready to favor friends, extinguish enemies, and with no compunction about circumventing the law.

One of those detractors is Orlando Martinez whose appointment to head of Juvenile Justice was vigorously endorsed by Whitworth. However, the two immediately locked horns when Martinez decided to cancel the department's contract with the Bobby Ross Group who had Whitworth on the payroll at the time. "I find it very unusual that we have a person doing consulting in the area of juvenile justice who has no experience that I'm aware of in our field," said Martinez.

Allen Ault ran Georgia's Correctional Department under governors Jimmy Carter and George Busbee. Ault was brought back in 1993 when Whitworth was removed. Ault said, "When I came back to Georgia, it seemed like there was a lot more good-ol'-boyism going on that I hadn't experienced under earlier administrations.

Current Corrections Chief Wetherington also collided with Whitworth when the Chief was approached by Newsome and Bob Contestabile, president of Sentinal. Newsome, Contestabile, and Whitworth tried to pressure Wetherington to privatize probation supervision in metropolitan Atlanta and combine parole and probation into a single agency.

"I didn't feel good about that," said Wetherington. "The more I heard about it and who was going to benefit, I didn't like it."

Whitworth accused Wetherington of a "power grab." Wetherington says Whitworth is bitter because "Bobby expected more out of me supporting things he wanted. Bobby Whitworth has a tremendous amount of influence. He calls the shots," said the chief.

Fingers in The Pie

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ethics laws in Georgia have always been weak and nepotism extremely common. The current system espouses a good-ol' boy system where contracts are often awarded based on friendship rather than fiscal responsibility.

Current laws allowed Department of Transportation board member Max Goldin to avoid prosecution when he failed to report that he owned 14 pieces of property along a road that the DOT voted to widen. Goldin, who voted on the proposal, sold the land at five times its appraised value. He was fined $15,000 for violating 29 counts of state law.

Even Corrections Chief Wetherington has been caught with his fingers in the pie. The chief owns more than $100,000 of Synovus Financial Corp. stock. During his tenure as police chief he arranged for two department bank accounts to be switched to Citizen Bank & Trust which is owned by Synovus. Wetherington pointed out that the switch to CB&T saved the department over $2,000 a month. However, closer investigation reveals that he bypassed First Union Bank which offered a savings of $4,200 a month.

Also, thirteen parole officers are employed by BI Inc. a company that supplies and monitors electronic ankle bracelets. Another thirteen board members are former BI employees. BI received their contract to monitor juvenile offenders in Georgia in 1997 even though they were not the lowest bidder...

Neither Whitworth nor Ray is the source of the scandal that is currently plaguing the Georgia parole board. The attorney general's office is investigating a $25,000 contract with a North Carolina firm hired to administer aptitude tests to parolees. The contract paid a commission to Dotty Edwards, the wife of a former South Carolina state representative. Her husband is now a registered lobbyist for the Bobby Ross Group in Georgia. Not surprisingly Ms. Edwards is also a close friend of Whitworth. BRG received the contract without any competitive bids. Her lawyer, Gene Adams, said that Edwards did nothing improper and her commission "didn't amount to a hill of beans."

On March 8, 2002 Patricia Alexander filed charges of sexual harassment against parole board member Gene Walker. She alleges that Walker, her former boss, frequently used vulgar language, initiated discussions about his sexual preferences, and often made suggestive and inappropriate comments about her anatomy. She also claims that Walker's advances came with increased frequency the longer she worked for him.

Alexander says Walker had her transferred from her job because she was sexually unappealing. Yet it was Walker who originally recruited Alexander to work for him when he was appointed to the board.

Alexander also names board Chairman Walter Ray in the suit claiming that he knew of the harassment but did nothing about it. She claims that Ray told her "it was not in the best interest of the board to take action." Alexander has worked for the state for nearly 25 years. She is expected to ask for as much as $3 million in damages.

The Shoe Drops

Former parole Chairman James "Tommy" Morris describes a time when Whitworth and Ray enlisted his help to design a plan that combined probation and parole. Morris said that at first "it all went over my head. Then I began to piece together what was happening." Juicy contracts for juvenile probationers and monitoring devices paralleled pending legislation. "About that time, I also noticed some wining and dining going on with the vendors." That's when Morris said, "wait a minute, what's parole got to do with probation?" The result was that Ray and Whitworth stopped consulting with Morris.

Morris was so appalled by the corruption he saw that he was quoted by the media in April 2002 as saying Georgia's parole board should either "be cleaned up or abolished." Morris, who spent 22 years on the board and was elected chairman three times, received a visit at his home by two Athens parole officers with a message that he was no longer welcome to visit the Athens district parole office. Morris, whose home is in Athens called the gesture "childish. They blame me for picking up where Lisa Thompson left off," he said.

Topetzes gave the order to exile the retired Morris. He described Morris' message as one of shock and disappointment. "After reading Tommy's commentary, there were a host of people who were greatly disappointed in his remarks," said the director. Topetzes soon found out how deeply the disappointment really ran.

On June 13, 2002, Bobby Whitworth and Walter Ray resigned from the board. Topetzes resigned the next day. When the storm had finally passed a total of eight members had resigned from the parole division. John Walker, executive assistant to the board, Kathy Browning, director of public information, Stephanie McConnell, legislative liaison and Topetzes all resigned and are all known for their unflagging support of Whitworth and Ray.

Governor Barnes appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal after attorneys for Streat, Whitworth, and Ray accused Atty. General Baker of soliciting the parole board on behalf of a major campaign contributor. Because of the accusation Baker recused himself from the investigation. He also announced the immediate suspension of Asst. Atty. General Sam Tillman who is alleged to have tried to coerce Gene Walker, a parole board member, to destroy a document that implicated Baker in an attempt to influence the board on behalf of a prisoner. Tillman was suspended without pay.

Allen Ault also noted that Whitworth used his final days as commissioner to finalize several contracts including one with his close friend Donald Cabaniss. Cabaniss, a psychotherapist, currently works for the parole board earning $125 per hour for his services.

Ethics Reform

The extent to which Ray and Whitworth have pushed for legislative favors has caused an outcry for stricter ethics laws in Georgia. Robert Pastor, president of the Georgia Chapter of Common Cause, a watchdog for the state, suggests that ethics laws are not strict enough. "I'm learning that this is a generic problem that's very serious. There may be a lot of sweetheart deals that are, technically separate from the agency but, practically, blur the line. While lenient Georgia laws forbid state officials from being paid to lobby for private interest groups state officials are not required to report outside income less than $20,000 or less than 10 percent ownership in a company. That kind of activity is completely in appropriate," Pastor said of Whitworth's activities.

On February 11, 2002 state Rep. Charles Judy Poag (D-Eaton) introduced legislation that would outlaw Georgia legislators from lobbying the parole board on behalf of prisoners. Poag also noted the shady dealings of Whitworth and Ray as he introduced the bill. What they did is "not right. It needs to be stopped," he said.

Buddy Nix, who took over the spot vacated by Ray discovered that in spite of all the resignations there was still some housecleaning to be done. Apparently a faith-based parole program that had been in place for 15 months and had received $40,000 in funding had failed to place a single prisoner. The Community Based Services Division was supposed to help paroled prisoners hook up with faith-based community organizations that would provide them with a variety of services including counseling and jobs. Dr. W. Thomas Beckner, director of the justice education department at Taylor University in Fort Wayne Indiana, began the project in April 2001 and expresses surprise that it is being scrapped.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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