Thursday, March 16, 2023

Camden County’s Public Service Authority, a “public body corporation” vested with projects in the public interest, like recreation. The organization was the center of a massive fraud scandal revealed in 2018 that resulted in the arrest of four people. However, none have been prosecuted in Georgia for the allegations of theft. Credit: Camden County PSA Instagram

Alleged fraud in Camden goes unprosecuted

More than $200,000 in taxpayer money allegedly spent on antique cars. 

More than $400,000 thought to be diverted to a private school run by an official’s wife and disguised as grants  

More than $3.2 million in total that Camden County officials say taxpayers lost in a massive fraud scheme revealed in 2018 within the Public Service Authority, a “public body corporation” responsible for construction of public welfare projects, like recreation. 

While its director went to federal prison for tax evasion, neither he nor his alleged accomplices have been prosecuted in Georgia for the accusations of theft of taxpayer funds. The director, William Brunson, and three others were charged in 2019 after a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe, but the case has since collected dust. Last month, Brunson was released from federal prison.

Camden County’s Board of Commissioners and Sheriff’s Office released a resolution this week to revive the case, seeking the Georgia Attorney General’s office to step in and appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute the PSA fraud. There’s a sense of urgency: the statute of limitations to prosecute the crimes runs out in September 2024. 

The Brunswick Judicial Circuit District attorney had a legal conflict with the case, so DA Keith Higgins was unable prosecute. Currently, the case is split between district attorneys in Ware and Chatham County, as well as the AG’s office, according to the resolution.

In an email on Monday, the AG’s office said a law that went into effect last year no longer allows it to assign special prosecutors after a conflict of interest is reported. Spokesperson Kara Richardson said the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council (PAC) is the statewide agency with the authority to appoint a prosecutor, despite what Camden County requested. 

Chatham County District Attorney
Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/The Current GA

Chatham DA’s staffing woes

The severe staffing issues at the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office culminated this month with the departure of the DA’s second in command.

DA Shalena Cook Jones, a former Special Victims Unit prosecutor who was elected on a platform of criminal justice system reform, has faced an uphill battle since taking office in January 2021. She inherited a caseload impacted by the Covid closure of the courts between March 2020 and March 2021. Her agency has been blamed by statewide Republicans who rail against progressive prosecutors for crime and even local Democrats in Savannah forced to respond to the national uptick in violence last year.

On March 3, Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Edwards departed the agency, according to his resignation letter. He wrote it was time for him to “step aside” after a 30-year legal career, but he offered to see through programs and grant projects the agency started.

Edwards prosecuted high-profile cases such as a Savannah cop’s excessive force charge and led programs, like the DA’s fines and fees collaboration. But court records show his workload increased last December, to the tune of more than two dozen cases, to replace departed DAs.

In the murder case of a shooting following a Savannah youth football game, Edwards — who was recently assigned to the case — had to request a delay last month.

“This case (was) initially prepared and indicted by former ADA Jennifer Parker. She subsequently departed the District Attorney’s Office. Several replacement ADAs have been assigned on this case, but they have likewise since departed the office,” Edwards wrote on Feb. 22. He sought a delay because he too was leaving in March, and a replacement prosecutor needed to be found.

TV station WTOC reported last week that DA Jones’ agency saw a 34% drop in staff when she took over from the last DA.

Jones said she has been fighting for funding for more employees. She received some funding for more prosecutors from Chatham County in the most recent budget, but not as much as she asked for and much of it in temporary federal dollars.

Former Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson fired after his DUI arrest in Liberty County.

More charges for ex-Savannah cop

A former Savannah police officer has seen a fall from grace from one year ago.

Ernest Ferguson, 28, was a beat cop for the Savannah Police Department, brought onboard in April 2021 from his prior job as a prison guard at Coastal State Prison. He came at a time when the department needed officers to fill a staffing shortage amid lagging morale and a controversial chief.

But last week marked Ferguson’s fourth visit to jail since he was suspended from duty after his fatal shooting of a Carver Village man in June 2022.

On Mar. 8, Ferguson was taken to jail in Clay County, Fla. after being arrested in Columbus, Ga. for missing court in Florida, according to a police report. He faces theft charges in Florida. On Feb. 25, the Columbus Police Department charged him with drug possession, having drug paraphernalia and for skipping court.

The Savannah Police Department fired Ferguson after he was charged with driving under the influence in Liberty County last fall. Ferguson said he developed a substance abuse problem as a result of a “traumatic shooting” and had received no counseling, as of last fall.

The shooting of Saudi Arai Lee, 31, in Carver Village last summer brought to light Ferguson’s troubled history as a prison guard and suspect hiring practices in the Savannah Police Department that made the agency overlook his misconduct records. The department said it has added controls to the hiring process to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

While the former officer faces mounting legal trouble across two states, whether or not he’ll face prosecution in Chatham County for Lee’s death remains to be decided eight months later. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation completed its investigation back in August and handed the case over to DA Jones.

A spokesperson confirmed DA Jones’ review of whether charges are appropriate has not been completed.

Glynn County courthouse Credit: Justin Taylor for The Current

One more thing: Glynn County court expansion

Glynn County commissioners are set to award a nearly $750,000 bid to a Denver architectural firm to design a new “juvenile justice center” for the county.

The total project has a $12 million price cap and is intended to replace the older building where juvenile court occurs. It’s part of a larger security overhaul of the Glynn County Courthouse.

Juvenile court, where minors under the age of 18 accused of offenses go, is the front lines of the criminal justice system. Glynn County’s Juvenile Court is tasked with overseeing approximately 600 juveniles on probation and keeping monthly tabs on their progress, according to the FY2023 budget. The court institutes programs to divert children and teenagers from the criminal justice system through intervention, therapy programs, and cognitive behavioral health programs to change behaviors. If all else fails, juveniles who keep reoffending end up in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice and, at worst, adult jail.

The investment in a new juvenile justice center speaks to the county’s continued population growth and yearly increases in the court’s budget, the county’s budget shows.

Glynn County commissioners will vote on the measure Thursday.

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...