I-TEAM: What do federal charges mean for Augusta commissioner — and what’s ahead?

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 8, 2021 at 10:35 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An elected official in the Augusta city government is named in a two-count federal indictment charging him with destroying records in a federal investigation and lying to federal investigators researching the case.

Sammie Sias declined to comment when contacted by News 12. So we couldn’t ask the District 4 commissioner if he has any plans to resign. But the FBI is commenting, saying “The alleged cover-up was not only a violation of oath taken by this elected official but a theft of the public’s trust. We will do everything in our power to pursue officials who abuse their positions.”

This all began when Sias was accused of misusing SPLOST funds, or your tax dollars, at the Jamestown Community Center. As an elected official, only Gov. Brian Kemp could remove Sias from office. We emailed the governor’s office to ask if they will, but we have not yet received a response.

The grand jury spoke in only three pages, a rather short indictment but enough to put Sammie Sias away for up to 20 years if he’s convicted.

Count 1 says Sias destroyed, altered of falsified records on Aug. 5, 2019, back when this investigation was first making headlines. Specifically possibly concealing “Digital files belonging to Sandridge Community Association which knowingly included invoices, spreadsheets, work orders, payments .... financial reports and other documentation of Jamestown Community Center” and other entities “With the intent to obstruct the investigation.”

According to the timeline in the federal indictment, the destruction of records came three days before the FBI and GBI raided Sias’ home taking hard drives and paperwork from the property.

News 12 was there during the raid when Sias told the public he was complying.

”It’s part of the inquiry about the allegations,” Sias said. “I have no problem with that. I appreciate them. They were very professional. They were courteous, and to say the least, this is what you do when you have allegations against you and you have to get that cleared up. So this is a statement for you all — Commissioner Sias is not running away from anything.”

The day after that statement on camera, Count 2 says Sias knowingly lied to a federal agent. During an interview at the commissioner’s Hephzibah home that day, “Sammie Sias said he had provided all electronic and paper files in his possession.” That statement was false because Sias knew he still possessed records related to the investigation.

For his part, Sias has always maintained his innocence and said the allegations against him were made by a jilted ex-lover of 20 years.

As for why the case took two years, remember the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down investigations and grand jury proceedings across the board. Regardless, we now know the Department of Justice is going to prosecute Sias for allegedly orchestrating a cover-up.

Trial or plea deal? Defense attorney in headline-making federal case weighs in

“Anytime the federal government charges you, it’s always gonna be serious, but to me, what’s interesting is the fact they charged him with destroying documents and giving false statements,” said Titus Nichols.

Nichols is a defense attorney. He represented whistleblower reality winner in federal court in 2018. We sat down with him to look over the Sias indictment.

“So, when it comes to prosecuting government officials, just because the Department of Justice has brought charges does not mean that a jury is going to convict,” he said.

Now that charges have been filed there are two options on the table: Trial or a plea deal.

How likely is it a plea deal will be reached in this case?

“It depends on what the government is offering,” he said.

Nichols says Sias’ position and the nature of the charges could make it challenging for a prosecutor to convince a jury in trial.

“When you’re dealing with a government official, you have a certain level of credibility that that government official brings to bear,” he said.

He says these charges could also be a tactic to get more information for additional charges.

“It really just depends on what it is, what’s the end game for the prosecution,” Nichols said.

We spoke with Sias, but he has no comment at the time.

Nichols says rules for this federal district do not allow those accused or their lawyers to make any public comments about the FBI’s investigation.

“Commissioner Sias or his lawyer cannot put out a press release or responding to what the U.S. Attorneys Office said. He can’t put out a press release or a press conference says ‘I’m innocent, I have no criminal record, these charges are baseless’ because he’s bound by simply saying what he name is, what he’s been charged with, and when he has a court date,” said Titus Nicholas, former Federal Defense attorney.

We also reached out to three commissioners, who also do not have a comment.

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