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  •   ethics watch  

    Finally, 3 years later, trial set for alleged theft of public funds

     

    By JIM WALLS

    Ten years ago, prosecutors say, Davetta Johnson Mitchell began supplementing her six-figure salary with unauthorized checks from the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.

    Three years ago, a grand jury indicted her, alleging she used seven such checks to steal $40,000 in public money.

    Now, after Mitchell’s case appeared to have nearly slipped through the cracks, a judge says the authority’s former executive director will finally get her month in court.

    Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall last week brushed aside a request that would have delayed the case even longer and set a Jan. 10 trial date. The trial could last a month, defense attorney Avis Hornsby said.

    The case has dragged on since 2008 in a dispute over the statute of limitations. Hornsby moved to have charges dismissed, arguing the statute had expired before Mitchell was indicted. In May 2009, Schwall denied that request, and then … nothing happened.

    No one seemed eager last week to take responsibility for the delay. Schwall said he thought Hornsby planned to appeal his decision. Hornsby told the judge she’d been waiting on him all this time to issue an order in writing so she could appeal it.

    While she waited, neither the court, the district attorney’s office nor the defense took steps to move the case along.

    “I don’t understand why nobody came to me and said, ‘Judge, we’ve got to have an order,’” Schwall said from the bench.

    The prevailing side, in this case District Attorney Paul Howard’s office, normally prepares a written order for the judge’s signature, a court spokesman said later. That never happened.

    Howard’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

    Hornsby asked the judge again Thursday to give her time to appeal his ruling, but Schwall wasn’t buying it.

    “It’s too late,” he said. “Too much time has gone by and we’ve got to move this case.”

    Schwall was so insistent on setting a trial date that Hornsby had to ask permission to complete a sentence without interruption.

    A four-year statute of limitations applies to Mitchell’s alleged crimes. Hornsby contends the authority’s accountant and others knew about the checks when they were written between 2000 and 2003, but prosecutors say the clock didn’t start ticking until an audit was completed in 2004.

    Mitchell was a $22,500-a-year member of the Atlanta City Council, and Mayor Bill Campbell’s floor leader, when she landed the authority job in 1997. The indictment charges Mitchell wrote the checks, ostensibly for unused leave, for amounts that she was not entitled to.

    After Mitchell’s employment contract expired in July 2003, her successor stumbled across the checks.  He found she had already paid herself 90 percent of her annual salary by July, including a single check for $23,785.

    “We were in shock,” then-authority chairman Tommy Dortch said in grand jury testimony read in court last year.

    Prosecutors said it took them four years to sift through the authority’s records, such as they were, and make sense of them.

    “There was almost no record keeping, at least not in organized fashion,” assistant district attorney Kelli Hill said, according to a court transcript.

    Given the years it’s taken to resolve the case, Hornsby said last week she will move to dismiss the charges on grounds that Mitchell has been denied a speedy trial.

    She can try, Schwall said, but it’ll be a tough sell considering she’s asked to delay the trial even longer.

    “I think,” he said, “you’ve got a problem.”

     

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