Defense attorneys claimed Monday that Glynn County Police Chief John Powell and three other former top cops stand accused of criminal malfeasance simply because Jackie Johnson had an ax to grind.
“I think it’s clear she had a conflict of interest from the beginning,” defense attorney Amanda Clark Holland said of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney.
But Johnson has good reason to be upset with certain members of the police department — primarily because of more than 100 drug cases her office has had drop due to the county’s corrupt narcotics squad, the prosecuting attorney said. However, attorney Joe Mulholland said Johnson’s disgruntlement does not excuse the crimes committed by the defendants.
“Maybe I’ll be recused,” said Mulholland, district attorney for the South Georgia Judicial Circuit. “I don’t like the defendants and I don’t think much of what they did. And I think they should be prosecuted.”
After hearing a full day’s worth of testimony in Glynn County Superior Court, Judge Anthony Harrison said he will rule soon on whether to quash a 21-count indictment against Powell and three others.
Powell, former department Chief of Staff Brian Scott, former Lt. David Haney and former Capt. David Hassler all were arrested Feb. 27, charged in a 21-count indictment on charges ranging from perjury and influencing a witness to violation of oath of office.
The indictment alleges inaction as well as a coverup of the 2019 scandal that imploded the department’s Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Unit. Word that undercover county police officer James Cassada slept with a confidential informant subsequently forced the DA’s office to dismiss 18 months worth of drug cases.
All four defendants were present in the courtroom Monday. A cadre of attorneys representing the four men filed a motion to quash the indictment. The attorneys described the indictment as Johnson’s vendetta against the department.
Johnson herself spent several hours on the witness stand defending the case.
Johnson recused herself from the case in May, after which it was assigned to Mulholland.
Attorneys claimed Johnson has supported disbanding the police department. They claimed she has railed for county officials to fire both Powell and Haney.
Johnson said she dismissed attorney Adrienne Browning from her office after discovering she was dating Haney, who was married at the time. Now a private attorney, Browning was among those representing Haney on Monday.
“They were having a less-than-professional relationship,” Johnson said. “So I gave her an opportunity to resign and she did. Once I was done with that, it was over. I felt that there were ethical issues in my office and that’s how I addressed them. I felt I had an obligation to let the police department know what I did and that it involved a Glynn County police officer. But, no, I wouldn’t have told anyone to fire him.”
However, Glynn County Police Capt. Tom Jump said Johnson requested to him and others in the department that Haney be fired over the affair with Browning. Former Glynn County Commissioner Mark Stambaugh said Johnson expressed similar sentiments to him. The sentiments concerned more recent Facebook posts by Browning that denigrated Johnson, he said.
“She was upset about some Facebook posts,” Stambaugh said. “She made the statement, ‘If he worked for me, I’d fire him.’”
Glynn County Manager Alan Ours said Johnson grew angry with Powell in 2018 because he would not take action against Haney over the Facebook posts.
“I believe Chief Powell told her he couldn’t do that because (Browning) didn’t work for the police department, that she was just his boyfriend,” Ours said.
Ours said he never heard her call for Powell’s firing. “I cannot specifically remember her saying that, but I can say she wasn’t happy with him or the police department,” Ours said, referring to a meeting he and Johnson had in the fall of 2019.
They also claimed Johnson supports the disbanding of the county police department. A Camden County resident, Johnson said she simply believes Glynn County residents deserve a chance to vote on the issue.
Johnson first heard about problems with GBNET in late 2018, when Brunswick police officers serving on the countywide narcotics squad told her about Cassada’s affair with the informant, she said. After the GBI began its investigation at Powell’s request in early 2019, Johnson said more and more issues of misconduct emerged.
GBNET was operating outside of its jurisdiction, including a 2018 incident that led to a pursuit back into Glynn County and crash that killed a passenger in the suspect’s vehicle. Johnson said growing evidence also began to emerge that the police department’s top brass was glossing over the Cassada scandal, influencing officers to change their stories and participating in coverups.
“I felt I had a professional obligation to do this thing,” she said. “I was perplexed that no one at the police department seemed to take any of these things that were coming out seriously. It’s my professional obligation to do something about this. I think the public expects it.”
Johnson recruited former Clayton Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tracy Lawson to present the case to the county grand jury in February. Johnson wanted a neutral party to look at the case, she explained.
However, Johnson said her office intended to prosecute the case. But Johnson recused herself in May after a dispute with a Glynn County commissioner over the Ahmaud Arbery murder case. Johnson immediately recused herself from the Feb. 23 shooting death of Arbery, for which former longtime Brunswick DA Investigator Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael stand accused.
Commissioner Peter Murphy later accused Johnson of directly interfering with the case, alleging she told county police on the scene not to make arrests.
The McMichaels and a third suspect were not arrested until the GBI stepped in in May.
Murphy said his information came from Powell.
“This case was always mine until May,” Johnson said. “May of this year is when I found a conflict of interest.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr assigned Joe Mulholland to the case shortly afterward.
Mulholland said Monday he hopes to have an opportunity to present the case to a grand jury.
“They were looking out for their buddy who was having sex with a meth head,” he said. “They (the jury) don’t need that. The law’s simple, and common sense still dictates what juries do. We have officers who in the course of their duty purposely withheld information and covered for their buddies, and that’s a violation of oath of office.”
Through mutual agreement, however, Judge Harrison dropped a charge of violation of oath office against Powell. Count 19 of the indictment’s 21 counts, the charge centered on Powell not disciplining Haney, who refused to speak with GBI investigators.
“I don’t know that that rises to the level of a criminal charge,” Mulholland conceded.
Powell remains on paid administrative leave. Scott is on administrative leave as Vidalia’s police chief. Haney and Hassler both resigned in 2019.