Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Judge Brooks E. Blitch III. Alapaha Judicial Circuit.
Clinch County Courthouse, Ga.
Feds Make It Official, Indict Former Judge and Four Others
Ex-judge Blitch pleads not guilty after months of being listed as unindicted co-conspirator
Alyson M. Palmer and Andy Peters
Fulton County Daily Report
July 21, 2008
Before he had a chance to review the 78-page indictment alleging that his client was at the center of a corrupt court system in south Georgia, Harry D. "Donnie" Dixon Jr. on Friday laid out a familiar argument on behalf of former Judge Brooks E. Blitch III.
"I don't think they will be able to prove he profited financially," said Dixon, echoing what former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes said on behalf of Blitch in the weeks before the judge resigned rather than face a Judicial Qualifications Commission trial that could have forced his removal from the bench.
The response from U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood of the Middle District of Georgia was simple: "The fact that someone did not receive money does not mean there was not a violation of the law."
The resolution of that debate began in earnest on Friday when Blitch, wearing a green golf shirt, khaki pants and leg irons, pleaded not guilty to a host of charges before a federal magistrate in Macon, Ga.
Blitch was one of five people indicted earlier this month by a federal grand jury that had been investigating alleged corruption in the Alapaha Judicial Circuit.
The indictment had been anticipated for weeks. Last year, the FBI raided Blitch's chambers in the Clinch County Courthouse, and he had been listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in at least five federal indictments.
The indictment alleges among other things that Blitch created unnecessary government jobs, allowed others to pocket money in exchange for access to him and ordered the collection of illegal fees in criminal cases. Charges include extortion, mail fraud, false statements, conspiracy to defraud the public of honest services, retaliation against a witness and aiding and abetting possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Greg Jones, who heads the Atlanta office of the FBI, said at a Macon press conference with Wood that a warrant for Blitch's arrest was issued shortly after the indictment was filed Thursday. Jones said the FBI picked up Blitch while he was driving near Jacksonville, Fla., near Blitch's second residence.
While the other defendants were allowed to turn themselves in, Wood said Blitch was arrested because authorities considered him a flight risk and that, given the government's claim he retaliated against a witness, could do the same with other witnesses.
On Friday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah E. McEwen told U.S. Magistrate Judge Claude W. Hicks Jr. that Blitch should be held for a $50,000 bond secured by a 10 percent cash deposit, to which Dixon agreed.
McEwen maintained that bond was warranted because Blitch has a $1 million coin collection that easily could be liquidated, making him a flight risk. Dixon also did not object to the government's request that Blitch be precluded from contacting a list of 30 people, although he noted that as long as Blitch is in the small town of Homerville, Ga., it would be "impossible" for him to avoid them altogether.
Blitch spoke in the courtroom only when Hicks said he would not accept a plea other than "not guilty."
"I assume that is the plea you will enter," said Hicks.
"That is correct," Blitch responded.
Friday afternoon in Macon, Dixon said if the charges were "anything like we anticipate, he denies it emphatically, and we will dispute it vigorously." Dixon is a former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District.
The others indicted were Berrien L. Sutton, a former State Court judge in Clinch County and a juvenile court judge for the circuit who, like Blitch, resigned this year just before a trial before the Judicial Qualifications Commission; his wife, Lisa Sutton, the court administrator of the Alapaha Circuit; attorney George A. Bessonette; and a man named Hayward Collier. Each of those defendants is charged with being part of some honest services fraud conspiracy, and each also has been charged with at least one other offense, such as perjury or mail fraud.
Only Collier appeared with Blitch in court on Friday. Collier's lawyer, C. Brian Jarrard of the federal defender's office, told the court that Collier had driven himself from Vidalia to Nashville, Ga., to turn himself in.
The other defendants indicted with Blitch are expected to turn themselves in on Monday for a hearing in Albany, Ga., Wood told the Fulton County Daily Report. Efforts to contact them or their lawyers were unsuccessful.
While Blitch is accused of being part of multiple schemes to defraud taxpayers, the indictment never explicitly alleges that he received illegal payments in exchange for favors he doled out.
Instead, the indictment alleges that Blitch got campaign help, free legal services, "personal loyalty" and sometimes a lighter workload for himself.
To support its charge that Blitch was part of an honest services fraud conspiracy by virtue of his creation of unnecessary positions, the government alleges that the Blitch family owed "substantial" legal fees to Berrien Sutton. According to the indictment, Sutton represented family members of Blitch and their corporate interests in civil and criminal litigation from 1997 to 2006. The indictment says Blitch got free legal services in exchange for the favors he gave to the Suttons and Bessonette, a former associate of Berrien Sutton and later a law clerk to Blitch.
According to the indictment, those favors included creating an unneeded juvenile court judgeship for Berrien Sutton, an unnecessary court administrator job for Lisa Sutton and various appointed positions, such as temporary superior court judge, for Bessonette.
The government says while Berrien Sutton did little or no work as a juvenile court judge, Bessonette's main job as a law clerk was to act as the juvenile court judge, getting "under the table" payments from Berrien Sutton so Sutton could keep his retirement potential as high as possible. Blitch also ordered all divorcing spouses with children to attend counseling through a program created by Lisa Sutton called "In the Best Interest of the Children," at $30 a person, according to the indictment.
Blitch and Berrien Sutton are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud over allegations about illegal court fees. The indictment says that Blitch and Sutton imposed fees of $10 to $15 in certain criminal cases, even after the county commission voted to discontinue the assessment of such fees in 2001. According to the indictment, "proceeds" went to two court clerks, a sheriff's deputy and other county employees in addition to their official salaries.
Improper fees were at the heart of the JQC's case against Blitch, but his lawyer in that matter, Barnes, told the Fulton County Daily Report that the fees were used for "public purposes."
The JQC had alleged that Blitch had authorized the purchase with those fees of a $23,485 patrol car for the sheriff's department -- an expenditure that the Clinch County Commission had previously rejected -- more than $4,000 for camera equipment for the sheriff and $1,786 to buy four semi-automatic handguns for himself, the court clerk, the sheriff and a deputy.
Barnes noted that financially strapped rural counties -- like those that make up the Alapaha Circuit -- out of necessity operate on a different standard from wealthy urban counties. "How's the sheriff's department supposed to operate if it doesn't have a police car?" he asked.
As the basis of the other honest services fraud conspiracy charge against Blitch, the government alleges a scheme where the judge gave criminal defendants illegal and unethical assistance with their cases. Such alleged assistance includes reducing previously imposed sentences, reducing bonds or authorizing the release of incarcerated persons, all without a hearing.
The indictment describes at least two people who took money from defendants or their representatives in exchange for making an introduction to Blitch -- an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator described as a nonattorney and a convicted felon, and Collier, described as a man with the nickname of "Head" who "often attends court proceedings in Berrien County and meets with Judge Blitch in order to influence the outcome of criminal cases." For the unnamed co-conspirator, his "payment" to Blitch for the favor was to actively campaign for Blitch.
Allegations that Blitch offered to "fix" cases also formed the basis for one of the two extortion charges against him. That appears to be based on allegations already detailed in a June indictment against Douglas, Ga., lawyer George F. McCranie IV. The indictment earlier this month against Blitch alleges the judge solicited assistance from "attorney GM" in investigating Berrien Sutton and offered to "fix or get rid of'" certain DUI cases where GM represented the defendants as a favor to GM.
The other extortion charge against Blitch is based on allegations that Blitch gave then-Magistrate Judge Linda C. Peterson a $14,000 raise after she helped him and his son resolve a legal claim by threatening a man with jail if he didn't pay a supposed debt to Blitch's son. Earlier this month a federal jury acquitted Peterson of the conspiracy charge based on those allegations but convicted her of perjury and making false statements.
The indictment also charges Blitch with two counts of retaliating against a witness, a retired longtime special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified as "WB." The indictment says that WB worked on the investigation and prosecution of Blitch's son -- presumably, Brett Blitch, who in 1999 was convicted for arson, mail fraud and money laundering in connection with a fire that destroyed the Blitch family's Homerville car dealership. The indictment describes multiple incidents in which Judge Blitch allegedly telephoned public officials in various municipalities to tell them not to hire WB.
Two other charges against Blitch are based on allegations that he told a convicted murder identified as "WHW" that the judge did not object to him having guns for hunting.
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