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Johnson: GBNET officer's conduct affects court cases
 lhobbs  / 

A Glynn County narcotics squad officer’s alleged relationships with informants emerged in court last week, resulting in a convicted drug dealer’s release on bond and prompting District Attorney Jackie Johnson to ponder the status of dozens of similar cases, she said Monday.

Officer James Cassada’s alleged misdeeds were raised by public defenders during a hearing Wednesday for defendant Gary Whittle before Judge Roger Lane in Glynn County Superior Court, Johnson said. It was noted that Cassada, who had been with the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team, allegedly had improper relationships with two confidential informants, Johnson said. Those informants had provided information to police that led to drug-related arrests, Johnson said.

Cassada resigned recently while under an internal investigation of the allegations, which also were being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said Brian Scott, Chief of Staff of the Glynn County Police Department. As reported Feb. 6 in The Brunswick News, the GBI began an investigation into possible wrongdoing of a county GBNET officer on Feb. 4, at the behest of county police Chief John Powell.

GBNET is a unit combined of county police and Brunswick Police officers that combats the local illegal drug trade.

After Cassada’s alleged misconduct arose, the county public defender’s office sought a hearing to have Whittle’s original guilty plea set aside, Johnson said. In light of the allegations against Cassada, Johnson agreed to allow Whittle to be released on bond Wednesday while the case is re-examined. Whittle had pled guilty in November to the sale of a controlled substance, according to court records. He was released on his own recognizance, according to jail records.

The hearing was recessed and will resume at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, according to the DA’s office.

“This particular officer had been involved in that case (against Whittle),” Johnson said of Cassada. “I agreed to let the defendant be released on what he believes is an illegal conviction. The importance of this is, once we finish this hearing, it affects not only this one particular case, but it potentially affects 75 or more GBNET cases.”

Johnson said at least 10 suspected drug dealers have been released on bond as a result of Cassada’s alleged involvement with confidential informants. Also as a result, Johnson said she has asked for the postponement of 40 upcoming drug-related cases scheduled to go before Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett.

Some cases may have to be retried, she said.

“It’s not good,” she said. “We’ve had to suspend moving forward with drug cases until we know where we stand. And to keep the status quo, what we’ve had to do is let some people out of jail.”

Chief Powell was among those who was called to the witness stand at Wednesday’s hearing for Whittle. As a result, he is still under subpoena and cannot comment on the case.

However, he did confirm that it relates to the ongoing investigation, which he first brought to the attention of the GBI.

That GBI investigation into whether Cassada committed any crimes is still ongoing, said Stacy Carson, Agent in Charge of the GBI office in Kingsland. The county police department’s investigation also remains ongoing, said Scott, who is taking part in the investigation. The internal investigation seeks also to determine whether additional misconduct exists within GBNET, he said.

“The chief received information internally from another employee about possible misconduct concerning this investigator,” Scott said. “Based on the information Chief Powell received, he contacted Stacy Carson with GBI to determine whether the allegations are founded or unfounded.”

Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News 

Caleb Lovell with the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission works on the valve of a 12-inch water pipe that burst under Norwich and Sixth Street on Monday. The burst pipe caused water to be shut down in the area between Emanuel Avenue, Newcastle Street, Fourth Street and Ninth Street.

Plans for new veterans memorial park '100 percent'
 tcooper  / 

Plans for a new veterans memorial park in downtown Brunswick are “100 percent” and the project is nearly ready to be bid out to contractors, the Glynn County Tree Advisory Board heard at its Monday meeting.

Glynn County is heading up the project, which is funded by Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax 2016 revenue. The current plan is to build the park on a vacant lot between I and J streets just off Newcastle Street, where the county jail once sat.

At the meeting, Public Works Director Dave Austin said the plan for the park is “100 percent” complete.

County officials and commissioners will likely meet before the project goes out to bid to establish a base package of features, Austin said. The base will include as much the county thinks the county can afford with the $1.5 million in SPLOST money allotted to the project.

Architects with TSW Design estimated the cost to build the park as planned would cost around $1.8 million. Anything the county considers extraneous will be included in the bid in separate packages, allowing it to include more features in the project if they’ll fit in the SPLOST budget, Austin said.

If the county does have to cut back on features, it can save up to add them later, the veterans park committee decided. Alternatively, it will leave more room for the memorial to grow, Austin said.

“(Veterans park committee chairman) Mike Browning understands these kinds of parks grow as more groups want to add memorials,” Austin said.

Should veterans groups wish to install memorials for military organizations or units in the park, there will be room along the sidewalks for them to do so, he said.

In other business, the advisory board heard updates on two live oak trees in Neptune Park and a cluster of trees at the end of one of the McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport’s runways that are slated for removal.

Designers with EMC Engineering met with county officials and tree preservation groups in Neptune Park recently to get a look at the situation, said Miriam Lancaster, with Golden Isles Fund for Trees.

County commissioners contracted with EMC to design a new picnic area so the current one can be moved out from under the historic trees. The trees had been in decline due to their age and the picnic area covering their roots.

She said the team seemed capable and asked good questions, and that she looked forward to seeing what they come up with.

Plans for relocating the picnic area will be presented to the public for comment before being finalized, she added.

During discussion of the trees slated for removal — located along Kings Way just east of its intersection with Frederica Road — Glynn County Airport Commission Executive Director Robert Burr explained the situation to tree board members.

The Federal Aviation Administration tasks all airports with ensuring the safety of the communities around them, Burr said. The trees are in a zone where safety regulations say nothing should stand taller than 20 feet.

Burr said the airport commission didn't fancy cutting the trees to a height less than 20 feet, as it would have to cut them again every time they grew above that height. Board member Bill Hilton agreed, but didn't want the county to strip the parcel of all vegetation.

The airport commission wanted to build a viewing area where the trees currently are, Burr said, but Hilton suggested leaving anything that would not grow to 20 feet and filling the gaps with minor shrubbery given the proliferation of benches on Kings Way and Frederica Road.

Burr said the airport commission would be fine with that.

County Public Works is planning to cut the trees down as soon as possible, Austin said. It is currently busy with a number of other road projects and will get to it eventually.

One lane may have to be closed when the trees come down, he added.

The tree board’s next meeting is scheduled for March 25.

Immigrant crime data bill wins approval
 wwolfe  / 

House Bill 202 would provide to the public aggregate statistics on crimes committed by people in state prisons who are in the country illegally. Monday afternoon, the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved the bill on a 8-2 vote.

State Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, is the lead sponsor of the bill and said it only pertains to state prisons — not local jails.

“The subset of inmates in this state who are illegally here are about 3 percent,” Petrea said. “So, this is a smaller subset. However, it is an impactful subset, because when you think about the fact that if indeed our federal government, our federally elected officials from both parties, if they were doing their job and dealing with the very important issue of immigration in this country, and making sure we have a legal and vigorous immigration system, if they were doing that job, then none of those crimes, perhaps, would have occurred.

“And so I had received this information at the request of the (state Department of Corrections) a couple of years ago, and discovered that I could get it, but it wasn’t available to the public.”

The aggregate data would include numbers on those under detainers from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, offenses committed and the home countries of the inmates “who are not United States citizens and who are confined under the authority of the department and, with regard to the total population in confinement, the percentage that comprises persons who are not citizens of the United States.”

The first report would go out Oct. 1, and then every 90 days thereafter.

“This is 1,505 currently in Georgia corrections, and well over 1,100 of these are violent and sex offenses,” Petrea said. “These are heinous crimes, folks. And the degree to which this is a problem, the people need to be aware of.”

The language of the committee substitute of the bill approved Monday doesn’t make it clear, but from discussion in committee, the statistics wouldn’t be on all unauthorized immigrants in state prisons, but on ones with ICE detainers — Petrea said there are an estimated 2,100 people in state prisons believed to be unauthorized but a few hundred don’t have ICE detainers.

Naomi Tsu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who specializes in immigration law in the Deep South, told the committee that what happens with an ICE detainer is that the agency indicates it’s interested in finding out the release date of that inmate so the agency can pick them up.

“It’s basically like filing an indictment, but in the immigration system,” Tsu said. “So, it’s not proof of anything, it’s allegations of something. A detainer will often be filed against someone who had legal status. So, one of the things Congress has done is to say you can lose your privilege of being here if you are an immigrant, if you entered — I’m not an immigrant, but I’m the child of immigrants, and if any of my family members had committed a really heinous crime like the ones on this list, they would’ve lost their immigration status. Until they became citizens, at which point you’re just subject to the same protections as all citizens.

“Congress strips people’s immigration status, and the way ICE goes about doing that — because it’s not an automatic process, there’s an immigration court involved, etc. — and so, ICE files a detainer against someone who might have been here completely legally, in order to try to strip that status so they can be deported.”

Various speakers swung both ways on directions they believed the bill should go — some advocated for explicit comparisons to the percentages of crimes committed by inmates in the general population, so as to provide context and not needlessly demonize immigrant communities. Others asked for the bill to cover everyone in prison believed to be unauthorized, along with those in local jails throughout the state.

The bill now moves on to the House Rules Committee.

House speaker responds in passionate address
 wwolfe  / 

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston — if he wasn’t in a secure position already — may have effectively ended a challenge to his leadership Monday morning with a forceful speech defending his reputation as a defense attorney and a legislator.

That followed last week’s blockbuster story by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV that alleged he used his elective office to put off for months or years disposition of criminal cases involving clients, and a move by several House members — including state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island — asking Ralston to resign as speaker and from his office representing the 7th District.

It’s a regular practice for attorneys to ask judges presiding over their cases for leave, sometimes months ahead of time. That allows for the resolution of various scheduling issues. For more than a century, state legislators have been able to use what’s called “legislative leave” to allow them to serve in Atlanta without causing problems in matters handled by their law practice back home.

According to the AJC, during the period of its investigation, Ralston claimed to be unavailable for 93 days, and 76 of those days were outside of legislative and special sessions.

That led to Friday’s measure — House Resolution 328. The resolution cites several matters that ended up continued at length, including, “A DUI case from 2008 that has received 17 court date extensions over 10 years; a rape/child molestation case involving a 14-year-old girl that has received eight court date extensions over more than five years; an enticing a child for indecent purposes case from 2009 that has received 14 court date extensions; a domestic violence case in which the battered wife has been unable to have a trial for more than five years….”

State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, is the lead sponsor of the resolution. He was joined by Reps. Jones, Kevin Cooke (R-Carrollton), David Stover (R-Newnan), Sheri Gilligan (R-Cumming), Ken Pullin (R-Zebulon), Matt Gurtler (R-Tiger), Michael Caldwell (R-Woodstock), Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs) and Colton Moore (R-Trenton).

In a statement sent late Friday, Jones said the decision to sign onto the resolution was not taken lightly.

“Despite having signed the resolution, I am fully expectant that Speaker Ralston will separate the politics of the office he holds as speaker of the House of Representatives from fulfilling the same solemn oath both Speaker Ralston and I made on opening day of the 2019 session,” Jones said.

Ralston’s move to speak from the well of the House on Monday morning wasn’t an altogether expected one, and he opened his remarks by noting his commitment to honor the chamber and to the elected members in it. He also said he was not going to yield to the temptation to be defensive, angry and paranoid.

“I choose instead to try to grow and learn from this moment,” Ralston said. “And I may not always like it, it may not be the easy thing to do, but I am reminded that perception is reality. I have heard through some of you, from those in your districts, our districts, who have questions about what they have read, seen on television or heard on the radio, and I want to be very candid with you — I would be concerned too, if I had heard or read those things without knowing all the facts.

“Make no mistake, the cases that have been reported are serious and tragic situations, as are many criminal cases. I am very sensitive to that. I am also very well aware that many who proclaim themselves to be constitutionalists forget that there are specific protections in our constitution which protect the rights of those charged, even with the most vile and disgusting crimes. It’s what makes us different as a nation.”

At one point calling the AJC story a “hit piece,” Ralston said elements were left out of the reporting that provided appropriate context.

“In a rush to create a perception, some things got left out,” Ralston said. “No. 1, not all of the continuances were requested by me. No. 2, not one time in all of my legal career, particularly during the period beginning in 2010, has a judge or a prosecutor in the circuits in which I practice questioned my need for legislative leave. No. 3, as any defense lawyer, I have absolutely zero control over a court calendar. Now, I may have a little control here, but I have no control in the courtrooms in the mountains of North Georgia because those are under the control of a judge and/or a prosecutor.”

He said that the judges and the prosecutors in those circuits have prioritizations and criteria to follow in managing cases. Ralston also talked about how he has meetings with judges and prosecutors to schedule around the session and find times that work for everyone.

“Back in November, before this was ever a story, I met with the judge and the district attorney and we agreed to schedule by special set, trials in two of the four in either May or June this spring, when this session is over,” Ralston said. “And that didn’t get reported. But I am not defensive, angry or paranoid. But an examination of all of the facts causes me to reject in the strongest possible way any accusation or insinuation that I have abused or misused my position.”

He said that a number of “fair-minded Georgians” have questions about legislative leave and real care for the victims in these cases, and that he has an obligation not to dismiss those concerns, but to do something about it. Ralston subsequently announced he’s putting together a bipartisan advisory group to address legislative leave and recommend changes. The group’s to be staffed by “legislators, judges, prosecutors, victim advocates, other members of the legal community and lay people.”

Ralston had some words to say about some of the news-talk radio personalities in the state, also.

“But let me tell you who need not apply, and that’s those who make their living screaming into a radio microphone,” Ralston said.

Notably, Erick Erickson’s used his position to launch broadsides against the speaker. Saturday, he released a blog post which was linked to a spreadsheet with the local numbers for state representatives, and he said to call them and ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 328.

In an Erickson column printed Saturday in The News, he said, “One (defendant) admitted he paid Ralston $20,000 to just keep delaying his trial. Ralston, as speaker, can get any case of his continued, and no judge can stop him. He has done this repeatedly for years as victims’ memories fade and justice is delayed.

“This is a story ripe for national media attention. It is a story of a politician abusing his power. There are multiple female victims waiting for justice. There is even one criminal defendant who admits he paid the speaker to stop his case from proceeding. It is happening in a swing state where Republicans are at risk of losing power.”

Monica Matthews, a conservative commentator who appears on WSB radio, tweeted Monday afternoon, “In a magnificent twist of events Speaker David Ralston becomes the victim. You can’t even make this level of narcissism up. Shameful.”

Ralston said Monday that he’s never discussed legislative leave with a prospective client, nor benefitted by the application of the law. However, he said he won’t accept another criminal client until the four cases mentioned are disposed, including two set for disposition in the weeks immediately following the end of this year’s legislative session.

Ralston added that those who sought to disrupt the session by removing him as speaker “will not be happy, nor will those who make a living stoking anger and fear in many of our citizens, and putting the money they get from that in their pocket.”

Following his speech, which lasted around 20 minutes, most of the members of the House gave Ralston a standing ovation as he exited the well.

For their part, reporters for the AJC, in their morning Jolt post, encouraged readers to take a look at their story a second time, “along with its victims and alleged perpetrators who went on the record amid great pressure and threat of potential backlash to share their stories.”