Federal authorities have been investigating Georgia state court judges and county officials for the past several years. The result thus far is numerous indictments and three guilty pleas on charges ranging from fraud and extortion to human trafficking.
The federal investigation has centered on the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, which comprises Clinch, Lanier, Berrien, Cook and Atkinson Counties in southern Georgia. On July 21, 2008, the FBI arrested five people who were at the epicenter of corruption in Clinch County’s court system.
Named in the 19-count indictment were former Judge Brooks E. Blitch, III; Berrien Sutton, a juvenile court judge and Blitch’s former law partner; Berrien’s wife, Lisa Sutton, who worked under Blitch as a court administrator; George Bessonette, a local attorney; and Hayward Collier, a friend of Blitch’s.
The Grand Jury charged that Blitch had engaged in a fraudulent conspiracy by creating unnecessary court positions, finding this allowed him to receive free legal services from the Suttons and Bessonette, who later served as Blitch’s law clerk.
In exchange for those services, Blitch created an unneeded juvenile court judgeship for Berrien, an unnecessary court administrator job for his wife Lisa, and various appointed positions such as a temporary superior court judge assignment for Bessonette.
While Berrien did little or no work as a juvenile judge, Bessonette stayed busy in his law clerk position by acting as a part-time judge, collecting “under the table” payments from Berrien to handle his case load.
After Lisa Sutton created a program called “In the Best Interest of the Children,” Blitch began ordering all divorcing spouses with children to attend the $30-per-person counseling class. Additionally, Blitch and Berrien Sutton were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud over their imposition of illegal $10 to $15 fees in certain criminal cases. The “proceeds,” amounting to over $73,000, went to two court clerks, a sheriff’s deputy and other county employees in addition to their salaries, and were not taxed.
Blitch also faces two counts of extortion, one of which was based on his offering to “fix or get rid of” certain DUI cases. The other extortion charge involved Blitch giving former Magistrate Judge Linda C. Peterson a $14,000 raise after she helped him and his son resolve a legal claim.
Peterson was convicted on July 14, 2008 on federal charges of perjury and making false statements. However, the U.S. District Court granted her motion for acquittal on November 3, 2008, finding the evidence presented at trial did not sustain the verdict. The U.S. Attorney’s office has asked for reconsideration.
Blitch is further accused of retaliating against a witness – a retired longtime agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation – for telling a convicted murderer that he had no problems with him owning a gun for hunting. Blitch was charged with aiding and abetting possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
After his arrest, Blitch was released on $50,000 bond; his prosecution is ongoing, as are the criminal charges against Berrien and Lisa Sutton.
In January 2009, Blitch’s friend Haywood Collier pleaded guilty to a charge of perjury. He was accused of accepting payments from criminal defendants seeking judicial favors from Blitch. Previously, charges were dropped against Bessonette and two other defendants accused of lying in the case, after they agreed to enter a pre-trial diversion program.
Another casualty in the investigation into Blitch and his associates was Timothy L. Eidson, chief public defender for the Cordele Judicial Circuit. Eidson was charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI. He was questioned about his attempts to get Blitch to delay criminal proceedings against his wife, who had been arrested on a felony cocaine charge. At the time Eidson was trying to land the chief public defender position, and he didn’t want it known that his wife was facing drug charges – or that he was reportedly involved in buying and using cocaine himself.
PLN previously reported on judicial ethics charges filed against Blitch and Berrien Sutton, as well as the federal indictments of Clinch County Sheriff Winston C. Peterson, former Magistrate Judge Linda Peterson (who is married to the Sheriff’s brother), and former Clinch County Court Clerk Daniel V. Leccesse, Sr. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.36].
In an unrelated incident involving judicial misconduct in Georgia, Fulton County Magistrate Judge D. William Garrett, Jr., his son Russell Garrett (a deputy sheriff) and Russell’s wife, Malika Garrett, were charged in June 2008 with nine counts of human trafficking, alien harboring, witness tampering and making false statements.
They allegedly induced a female Indian national to enter the United States under false pretenses to serve as a nanny for Russell and Malika’s children. The Garretts later stopped paying her, curtailed her freedom, kept her in an unheated basement room, and threatened to have her jailed and deported if she didn’t work 16-hour days for them.
On January 23, 2009, Russell and Malika Garrett pleaded guilty to charges of harboring an alien for private financial gain and making a false statement to federal officials. They will be sentenced in April; Russell was terminated from the Sheriff’s office. The charges against D. William Garrett, who is no longer a magistrate judge, are still pending. See: United States v. Garrett, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:08-cr-00231-ODE-ECS.
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fulton County Daily Report, Associated Press, www.walb.com
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Related legal case
United States v. Garrett
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:08-cr-00231-ODE-ECS|