Albany’s downtown manager, who was fired this summer shortly after being hailed by City Manager Alfred Lott as being capable of managing $6 million in city redevelopment funds, pleaded guilty Tuesday to nine felony corruption charges.
As a Dougherty Superior Court jury deliberated the case after telling Judge Denise Marshall it was deadlocked, Buie reached a deal with prosecutors to serve one year in jail and nine years on probation and repay the city $5,000. Buie also is banished from the county while he is on probation and from ever working in government service, and prohibited from contacting former girlfriend Nicole Brown, who along with Buie’s estranged wife, Shanon Lee Buie, and a businessman, Tim Washington, testified against Buie.
Buie was convicted of nine felony charges; 10 charges were dismissed. Brown, Shanon Lee Buie and Washington pleaded guilty in return for probated sentences and testified against Buie. Including time served in jail without bond, Buie is to remain in jail until Oct. 18, 2010. He could have received more than 100 years if convicted of all the counts against him.
Buie, who has a federal bank fraud conviction and recently worked for a Baltimore, Md., hospital, did not testify in his defense. Testimony and public records reveal that Buie paid Brown and his wife with taxpayer funds and arranged for Washington to rent a $2,000 a month downtown building for $1 a month. Buie’s defense attorney, Johnnie Graham, claimed during the five days of testimony and arguments that Buie was guilty of ethical violations, but not crimes.
Chris Cohilas, the Dougherty Judicial Circuit’s chief assistant district attorney, said late Tuesday that Buie’s sentence was disappointing but necessary considering the jury had deadlocked within 2½ hours of deliberation late Tuesday afternoon.
“I absolutely believe that Don Buie should have gotten more time, but unfortunately, we were faced with a jury that was hung and we had to make a decision that would secure his conviction and get the taxpayers’ money back that he was charged with stealing,” Cohilas said.
Cohilas acknowledged that within an hour after the verdict, the District Attorney’s Office was being criticized for making the deal with Buie.
But “we have done absolutely the best we could do with the situation we were faced with,” Cohilas said. “Do I think he should have gotten more time? Absolutely.”
Indeed, through the District Attorney’s Office’s efforts, local taxpayers will recoup nearly $100,000 that Buie either stole or diverted, including about $40,000 from Washington and about $50,000 from L’Jua’s restaurant owner Lajuana Woods, Cohilas said.
Woods secretly received $50,000 from Buie while serving on the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, city officials and prosecutors said. Woods was not charged with theft, Cohilas said, because Buie’s authority wasn’t specifically defined by Lott.
“It was impossible from a criminal standpoint to pursue those charges,” Cohilas said. “That would have been extremely problematic because it was not clear whether Mr. Buie had the authority to give her that money. What am I going to do, call Don Buie to the stand? That’s all we could do.
“Frankly speaking, his power was so vaguely defined that it truly inhibited our ability to pursue criminal charges against him for allocating money to Lajuana Woods and also hampered our potential prosecution against Ms. Woods.”
District Attorney Greg Edwards says a criminal case will be reconsidered if Woods reneges on her repayment arrangement. Woods is a recent Michigan transplant who was appointed to the ADICA board in late 2007 after giving City Commissioner Tommie Postell a $2,500 campaign contribution. Her restaurant opened last month with Mayor Willie Adams assisting in the ribbon cutting.
Woods clandestinely received $50,000 from Buie under the pretense that it was a “grant” for façade improvements; however, her restaurant is outside the boundaries of the grant program, which had a grant award limit of $5,000. Woods’ pact with Buie was revealed after reporters uncovered that Buie schemed to give Dollar Square owner Tim Washington taxpayer funds and free rent, and that City Manager Alfred Lott was covering the pact up by not responding to public records requests.
The ADICA board refused to censure Woods and the City Commission refused to remove her. Rather, Woods was forced to resign in lieu of being charged with committing misfeasance in office – the penalty for which is removal from public office, Cohilas said.
The City Commission hires the city manager and appoints ADICA board members. While prosecutors say that Buie’s public corruption was motivated by his pursuit of female companions, no evidence romantically linking Buie and Woods has been revealed, according to prosecutors or public records. Woods, who twice traveled with Buie to conferences, says she is going to pay back the $50,000 by late 2010.
Lott said that Buie was an excellent employee since being hired in 2007 until Buie was caught stealing taxpayer funds. Lott was not charged in the case and has not been rebuked by the City Commission. Another Lott assistant, James Taylor, is now managing a $6 million taxpayer-guaranteed downtown redevelopment program that Lott and Buie steadfastly kept secret from the public.
Buie’s trial got under way last week secretly and illegally. In conflict with state law, the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution, Marshall closed hearings on motions made as the trial opened Monday. Then, jury selection was sequestered – a process that is allowed to be made outside public purview, but only after a hearing on the matter is first held and a determination is made that conducting the proceedings secretly is warranted. No such hearing was held, despite the objections of news organizations.
Edwards said that the massive Georgia Bureau of Investigation report into the city manager’s office and ADICA business dealings under Buie will remain under seal until the criminal case is concluded. City Commissioner Bob Langstaff, meanwhile, has asked authorities to expand the criminal investigation at city hall to include pacts made by Albany Tomorrow Inc. under the direction of then-CEO Tommy Chatmon, who now manages public redevelopment in Orlando, Fla.