Jury: Independent panel should probe jail

Athens, USA - A grand jury has called for an independent agency to investigate the Clarke County Sheriff's Office because of "inappropriate" activities at the jail involving deputies belonging to a black supremacist religious sect whose leader is serving a 135-year federal prison sentence.

In its report, made public Thursday afternoon, the Clarke County grand jury said it heard testimony about communications between deputies and United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors leader Dwight "Malachi" York, and that the sheriff's office did not have a current policy and procedure manual that addresses deputies "consorting with known convicted felons." The report also said that deputies were recruiting prisoners into the sect.

"We have spent (a) considerable amount of time investigating the serious allegations raised concerning the sheriff's office," the report states. "Due to time constraints, a general conclusion cannot be reached at this time. The grand jury feels that further independent investigation is required and necessary in this matter."

The grand jury's 10-page presentment, which included 32 pages of exhibits, contained only two paragraphs concerning the investigation into Nuwaubian activities at the jail. All of the exhibits, and most of the presentment, concerned the panel's inspection of voting machines and the process of recording "physical" and electronic votes.

The panel's foreman, Athens attorney Jeff Rothman, said he could not comment about the presentment because of grand jury secrecy rules, but said he was "disappointed because each time the grand jury went off script, I believe roadblocks appeared to frustrate the grand jury and compromise its independence and integrity."

Among other things, Rothman referred to an attempt by Athens-Clarke County Attorney Bill Berryman to quash grand jury subpoenas issued to Nuwaubian deputies and Berryman's motion to allow Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards to have his response to the presentment published as an addendum to the panel's findings.

Clarke County Superior Court Judge Steve Jones denied the motion during a hearing Thursday morning, and Edwards' response was made an official court document when Berryman refiled an earlier motion, amending it by including the sheriff's response as an exhibit.

In his response, Edwards countered that in calling for an independent investigation, the grand jury "ignored" evidence that the sheriff's office was already investigating Nuwaubian activities at the jail.

"The grand jury's review of this issue coincided with a sheriff's office internal investigation of the same matter which, upon advice of counsel, had been ongoing for several months," Edwards said.

According to the response, Edwards told the grand jury about the need to protect employees' constitutional rights to due process and freedom of speech and association, and that based on the facts initially brought to his attention, the Nuwaubian deputies were not engaging in prohibited activities.

Edwards said his office was in the process of reviewing policies and procedures at the jail, and expected revisions would be made by this fall.

He vigorously disputed the grand jury's claim that an independent investigation of his office was needed.

"The sheriff's office is committed to a thorough and complete investigation of these serious allegations and has no bias or interest in favoring any group, religion or sect," Edwards said. "If policy violations occurred, then any employee who commits such infractions will be dealt with in a manner consistent with policy and applicable law, and the Internal Affairs team has been instructed to vigorously pursue the investigation."

When a 23-member grand jury was impaneled for the April term to consider criminal indictments, it also was instructed by the district attorney's office to inspect county voting machines and the jail.

"While investigating security and conditions at the Athens-Clarke County Jail, the grand jury heard testimony alleging inappropriate proselytizing/ recruitment of jail inmates by deputies affiliated with the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors sect," the panel's presentment states. "The grand jury further heard testimony confirming attempted correspondence between certain deputies and (York), who is currently a convicted felon and prisoner at the Federal Administrative Maximum Security Prison in Florence, Colo."

The panel's investigation came soon after Edwards fired his chief jailer, Brett Hart, who initiated the internal affairs investigation of Nuwaubian deputies, who Hart described as a disruptive and racially divisive influence at the jail.

Three Nuwaubian deputies testified before the grand jury, including one who actually wrote a letter to York telling the Nuwaubian leader he heeded York's call for "brothers" to join law enforcement. Three Nuwaubian deputies were later suspended, including one who appeared before the grand jury.

In response to the grand jury's assertions that the sheriff's office lacked policies forbidding certain inappropriate behavior by deputies, Edwards said there are "effective policies in place" concerning deputies associating with convicted felons.

"While all policies are currently under review, they will be revised appropriately and/or if needed to obtain accreditation through the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police state certification program," Edwards said. "With all due respect to the grand jury, agencies cannot revise policies simply because others disagree with interpretations reached based upon the circumstances. Any changes or applications of policy must involve factual scrutiny and protect the constitutional rights of all involved."

Edwards said in his statement he would welcome outside assistance in the jail investigation.

"Because the investigation is continuing, the information by the grand jury was incomplete, and its conclusions that the sheriff's office cannot properly conduct such an investigation seems based, in part, on a possible misunderstanding of well-established state and federal law regarding the rights of public employees," Edwards said. "While the sheriff's office is continuing its investigation, it also actively seeks, and will welcome, investigative assistance from a qualified and objective agency or individual."