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Georgia Sheriff, Judges, Other Officials Face Misconduct, Criminal Charges

In November 2007 a federal grand jury issued an indictment charging Clinch County, Georgia Sheriff Winston C. Peterson, 62, with perjury, using forced prisoner labor and extorting former jail prisoners.

Peterson’s indictment marked the second time in the past year that a Georgia Sheriff was charged while in office. Berrien County Sheriff Gerald W. Brogdon pled guilty last August to a charge of illegal sale of a firearm to a felon. On April 10, 2008 he was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.

Peterson had been Clinch County Sheriff since 1988. In 2000, he began charging prisoners at his jail $18 a day for room and board. From November 30, 2000 to November 21, 2004, Peterson collected about $30,000 from 475 prisoners. The funds were remitted to the County Commission.

Prisoners who were unable to pay the fees were forced to sign promissory notes before release; those notes stated they could be re-incarcerated for failure to pay. County officials agreed on April 14, 2006 to refund the jail fees plus pay $30,000 in attorney fees to settle a federal lawsuit brought by two former prisoners. See: Williams v. Clinch County, U.S.D.C., MD Ga., Case No. 7:04-cv-00124-HL.

The federal indictment charging Peterson with extortion by a public official states he had no legal basis to charge the jail fees. The two obstruction of justice charges relate to testimony Peterson gave in June 2007. He was asked if he had advised a non-indicted co-conspirator, a judge, of the identity of an FBI informant. The FBI was investigating the judge for criminal wrongdoing.

Peterson testified he had advised the judge that the informant was working for the FBI, but then stated he didn’t know that person was acting as an informant. The grand jury accused Peterson of knowing the judge was under investigation at the time.

The perjury charge stems from Peterson telling the grand jury the judge had never thanked him for providing informa-tion about the FBI informant. On April 30, 2007, the judge reportedly called Peterson to thank him for the information regarding the person from “Fargo,” who was the informant.

Finally, Peterson was charged with the forced labor of jail prisoner Ethen Strickland, who was required to work at a private business operated by Peterson’s wife “by means of abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process.’’

Peterson pled not guilty to the federal charges and was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond. He has not yet gone to trial. See: United States v. Peterson, U.S.D.C. MD Ga., Case No: 7:07-cr-34-HC.

Peterson is not the only Clinch County official facing scrutiny.
Associate Magistrate Judge Linda C. Peterson (who is married to Sheriff Peterson’s brother) was indicted on Sept. 21, 2007 on federal charges of perjury and making false statements. She is accused of lying to a grand jury as to whether she told criminal defendants they could use her father, a bail bondsman, to obtain bonds. Magistrate Peterson has since been suspended; her trial is scheduled for July 7, 2008. See: United States v. Peterson, U.S.D.C., MD Ga., Case No. 7:07-cr-00022-HL-RLH.

Clinch County Court Clerk Daniel V. Leccese, Sr. pled guilty to a count of mail fraud on August 10, 2007 that resulted from more than $78,000 in illegal payments made to himself and four other county employees over a six-year period. See: United States v. Leccese, U.S.D.C. MD Ga., Case No. 7:07-cr-00021-HL-RLH.

Deputy court clerk Melinda Davis and Sheriff’s deputy Patricia Suggs, who had received payments from Leccese, re-signed in Sept. 2007 after agreeing to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Further, Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Chief Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III and Juvenile Court Judge Berrien Sutton, whose jurisdictions included Clinch County, with various ethical improprieties.

Blitch faced 12 counts of misconduct related to releasing prisoners early, ordering illegal payments to county officials, having an improper judicial temperament, and presiding over a case involving his son.
Although he was not criminally charged, Blitch’s office was raided by the FBI and in March 2008 he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a su-perseding federal indictment filed against Magistrate Judge Linda Peterson.

Judge Sutton was accused of 7 misconduct violations, including appointing non-lawyers to handle criminal cases, urg-ing a magistrate judge to help one of his business associates and signing an illegal order to collect off-the-books court fees that were distributed to county employees.
Both Blitch and Sutton agreed to resign from their judicial positions, effective June 30, 2008, to resolve the Commis-sion’s ethics complaints.
Rather than list the various Clinch County officials who have been charged with misconduct or criminal offenses, it may be easier to list the ones who have not.

Additional sources: Associated Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Times-Union,,, Valdosta Daily Times

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Related legal cases

United States v. Peterson

United States v. Leccese