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I-TEAM: Augusta DA leads state in passing off cases, citing ‘conflict’

Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 6:33 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Hundreds of court cases remain locked in limbo because district attorneys across Georgia want someone else to finish the job.

It’s not unusual for there to be some conflicts of interest in legal cases, but what our I-Team found interesting was the number of conflicts suddenly popping up. More specifically, the I-Team uncovered more of them are popping up in Augusta than in any other part of the state.

In 2021, Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams sent more conflict cases to the State Attorney General’s Office than any other district attorney in the state of Georgia, and the numbers are staggering. When you combine the top five counties by population, you get almost four million people.

Their district attorneys and solicitors general sent in a combined total of 41 conflict cases. By comparison, Richmond County’s population is only five percent of that, yet the I-Team uncovered the Richmond County District Attorney submitted DOUBLE the number of cases than all the ones from Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cobb, and Clayton Counties combined.

Even before he was sworn in, Jared Williams confirmed to the I-Team that he was planning to send the case against Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brandon Keathley to the State Attorney General’s Office because of a conflict of interest.

I posted his statement to my Facebook page on December 3, 2020.

Williams was officially sworn in as Augusta’s District Attorney 25 days later. “I got elected because people are ready for change,” Williams told News 12.

It took Williams another year to send the Keathley conflict request letter, delaying the case even further, but that’s not the only letter like it he sent.

The State Attorney General’s office confirmed the following to the I-Team: “The Augusta DA submitted more than 800 pages worth of 83 conflict cases in 2021.”

The reasons he wanted 83 cases off his plate and assigned to someone else? We’re told they were all the very same reason he first told the I-Team he had a conflict with the Keathley case: he’s a member of the Hawk Law Firm who had attorneys on staff representing someone involved in the case.

We also found that 83 is not a normal number of conflict cases from one district attorney.

The I-Team uncovered Williams sent the most conflict cases in the state, even sending eight times more cases than the new district attorney in Atlanta. Here is the list of the data the I-Team received from the State Attorney General’s Office:

2021 District Attorney Judicial Circuit/County Recusals

  • Jonathan Adams- Towaliga 2
  • Patsy Austin-Gatson- Gwinnett 2
  • Wright Barksdale- Ocmulgee 1
  • George Barnhill- Waycross 1
  • Sherry Boston- Stone Mountain 5
  • Flynn Broady- Cobb 6
  • Marie Broder- Griffin 4
  • Oliver Browning- Tallapoosa 12
  • George Christian- Mountain 1
  • Bobby Christine- Columbia 3
  • John (Herb) Cranford- Coweta 2
  • Lee Darragh- Northeastern 0
  • Tom Durden-Atlantic 4
  • Greg Edwards- Dougherty 5
  • Tripp Fitzner- Middle 2
  • Craig Fraser- Dublin- 7
  • Don Geary (private attorney)- 14
  • Deborah Gonzalez- Western 5
  • Keith Higgins- Brunswick 72
  • Anita Howard- Macon 5
  • Alisha Johnson- Rockdale 0
  • Bryce Johnson- Tifton 0
  • Mark Jones- Chattahoochee 13
  • Shalena Cook Jones- Eastern 5
  • William Kendall- Houston 2
  • Lewis Lamb- Southwestern 0
  • Jeff Langley- Enotah 0
  • Randy McGinley- Alcovy 2
  • Diane McLeod (private attorney)
  • Ronald Victor McNease- Pataula 0
  • Tasha Mosley- Clayton 1
  • Joe Mulholland- South Georgia 0
  • Samir Patel- Cherokee 42
  • Brian Patterson (private attorney)
  • Leigh Patterson- Rome 1
  • Darius Pattillo- Flint 1
  • Daniel Porter (private attorney)
  • Bert Poston- Conasauga 1
  • Dalia Racine- Douglas 4
  • Brad Rigby- Cordele 1
  • Matthey Rollins (acting DA)- Paulding 2
  • Bradfield Shealy- Southern 1
  • Brad Smith- Piedmont 1
  • Alison Sosebee- Appalachian 5
  • Liberty Stewart (private attorney)
  • Chase Studstill- Alapaha 8
  • Sheneka Terry (acting DA)- Chattahoochee 7
  • Daphne Totten- Ogeechee 0
  • Shannon Wallace- Blue Ridge 1
  • Jared Williams- Augusta 83
  • Fani Willis- Atlanta 8

Total 342

Solicitor General County Recusals

Pamela Bettis- Henry 7

Gabriel Bradford- Jackson 3

Charles Brooks- Clayton 2

William Callaway- Evans 0

Kenneth Carswell Wayne- 0

Carroll Chisholm Athens-Clarke- 3

Sonya Compton- Douglas 5

Dalton Dowdy- Jefferson 0

Charles Ferenchick- Grady 1

Adam Ferrell- Pierce 1

William Finch- Forsyth 11

Matthew Franklin- Burke 10

Keith Gammage- Fulton 1

Don Geary (private attorney)

J. Skye Gess- Baldwin 1

Benjamin Harrell- Decatur 9

Todd Hayes- Cherokee 7

Mark Hendrix- Liberty 5

Sanford Hill- Chattooga 2

Jason Hoffman- Tift 0

Michael Howard- Washington 1

Rebecca Jackson- Carroll 1

Joseph Johnson- Ware 2

A. Mark Lee- Effingham 0

Omeeka Loggins- Richmond 3

Maria Lugue- Glynn 6

Barry Morgan- Cobb 1

J. Brown Moseley (private attorney)

Billy Nelson- Long 0

William Oliver- Habersham 21

Katherine Paulk- Coffee 1

Ann Pickett- Stephens 19

Andrew Pope- Thomas 2

Patrick Shepherd- Spalding 2

Amy Smith- Houston 0

Donna Stribling- DeKalb 0

Sandra Taylor- Troup 0

Brian Whiteside- Gwinnett 13

Sandy Wisenbaker- Coweta 0

Stephanie Woodard- Hall 4

Doug Woodruff- Catoosa 0

Total 144

Total 486

*14 conflict cases originally assigned to Don Geary had to be re-assigned in 2021.

Going forward, Augusta District Attorney Jared Williams won’t just have the 83 conflict cases off his plate. Columbia County was recently split from Richmond County’s Judicial Circuit. It now has its D.A. to prosecute its cases, drastically reducing the number of cases for which Williams was once responsible.

The I-Team requested overall numbers of conflict cases from the last two decades to get more context for Williams’ conflict caseload, and here’s what we found.

Data shows 2021 was a record year for conflict cases submitted to the State Attorney General’s Office -- by a long shot. The State Attorney General’s Office received 486 of them. No other year over the last 20 years even remotely comes close. That 486 number more than doubles, or even triples the number of cases from previous years. Here is a list of those numbers:

2021 - 486, 2020 - 178, 2019 - 217, 2018 - 188, 2017 - 190, 2016 - 158, 2015 - 152, 2014 - 141, 2013 - 122, 2012 - 105, 2011 - 96, 2010 - 93, 2009 - 143, 2008 - 100, 2007 - 95, 2006 - 102, 2005 - 150, 2004 - 87, 2003 - 48, 2002 – 33,

Furthermore, the Office of the Attorney General told the I-Team in an email:

“District Attorneys are free to decline our request to take a conflict case for any reason… It would certainly be helpful if a District Attorney who submits 80-plus conflict cases would then agree to take on the prosecution of 80-plus conflict cases submitted by other DAs, but that does not happen.”

So far, “the Augusta D.A. has agreed to take three conflict cases.” That’s right. Just three cases. Right now, the assignment of conflict cases falls under the state prosecution division. That’s the same division responsible for prosecuting human trafficking, white-collar crime, public corruption, and cybercrime.

The AG’s office tells the I-Team they have a single paralegal, so the Chief Prosecutor has helped by contacting district attorneys across the state to take on these 486 cases, “time that typically would have been spent prosecuting cases that fall within our criminal jurisdiction.”

In other words, this traffic jam is slowing cases down all over the state, and it affects more than just conflict cases. The I-Team reached out to DA Jared Williams and asked for him to sit down with us about his submission of 83 cases. He declined our request via email, writing “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested in interviewing about this story. It’s been done multiple times now. Have a great weekend! Warm Regards, Jared T. Williams.”

The I-Team responded that we had compared Williams’ recusals with the entire state and found Williams recused the most number of cases statewide. That’s something that has never previously been uncovered or reported.

Here is what the I-Team told Williams about the upcoming report and to give him every chance to respond and explain: “For what it’s worth, I don’t believe this story has been done. Conflict cases, yes. But I received new data with the number of cases from each District Attorney in the state, and it shows you’ve submitted more than anyone else. Just being transparent and making sure you have an opportunity to respond if you choose. Again, thanks for the response and have a great weekend.”

So far, Williams has still declined to offer any explanation or answer any of our questions. The second-highest number of conflict cases in 2021 came from the district attorney in Brunswick. That’s where the former D.A. was arrested on charges related to how she handled the Ahmaud Arbery case.

Voters elected a new district attorney; he submitted 72 conflict cases. He took office at the same time as Jared Williams. It’s important to note, that Fani Willis was elected in Atlanta at the same time. She only submitted 8 conflict cases.

In the meantime, both the Georgia State House and Senate passed a bill that would move the conflicting process to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council. The I-Team has learned that would be huge in getting these cases assigned to prosecutors more quickly. Right now, it is sitting on Governor Brian Kemp’s desk, awaiting his signature.

The I-Team will be keeping an eye on it for you.

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