By Kevin Hogencamp
Judge Willie Lockette has ordered Albany Fire Chief James Carswell to sign a document saying that firefighter Joey Pait is of good moral character despite Carswell’s insistence that Pait is just the opposite.
It’s unknown whether Carswell – who refuses to answer The Albany Journal’s questions because of the judge’s gag order – will adhere to the court order. Pait and Lockette, the chief Dougherty Superior Court judge, also refuse to comment.
In violation of Georgia’s Open Records Law, the City of Albany is concealing records indicating whether Pait is working while drawing a paycheck. Three sources familiar with the Albany Fire Department’s administration said in May that Pait shows up at the main fire station on payday only, gets his paycheck, and does not work. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity. Pait is drawing a fire lieutenant’s salary.
Albany City Manager James Taylor has ignored The Albany Journal’s requests to review public records that detail whether or not Pait is working and how much he is being paid. City Attorney Nathan Davis says that the city is withholding the public records because of a judge’s gag order in Pait’s civil case against the city.
Nearly all city hall records, including all salary data and most employment records, are public. Refusing to disclose them is a misdemeanor crime. The law does not provide exemptions associated with judge’s gag orders.
Pait, a longtime firefighter who was reinstated in 2010 after a seven-year legal battle that included being found not guilty of a molestation charge and pleading guilty to theft — and then a lengthy effort to be rehired and receive back pay. Pait attended classes at Albany Technical College to regain his firefighter certification, but has not been fighting fires or performing office work for the department since completing school last year.
Lockette ruled last year that Pait should receive back pay and should be allowed to return to work. He did not issue a court order at the time, however, and Carswell refused to sign off on state-mandated paperwork declaring that Pait is “of good moral character” – thus making him eligible to re-enter the fire protection profession. Doing so, Carswell has said, would be a breach of ethics.
Lockette also ruled that Pait should not have been terminated because the city personnel policy only requires an employee to be fired for felony convictions, and Lockette noted that under Georgia law, Pait’s first-offender status does not constitute a “conviction.”
Clerk of Court officials say that Lockette has issued gag order and is concealing all court records associated with the case, including the gag order itself. The civil dispute is continuing, meanwhile, as the city and Pait attempt to determine how much Pait is due in back way. The city’s early estimate is that Pait may be due more than $420,000.
In a Sept. 1, 2010, memorandum to Richard Escoffery, an Atlanta attorney representing the city in the matter, Carswell argued that Pait tried to plead guilty twice during his Dougherty County sexual molestation trial in 2003. Pait was acquitted of the charges.
Carswell also said in the memo that Lockette should not rule in the matter because Lockette’s wife, Helen, made legal arguments similar to Pait when she worked for the city. But, Carswell said, City Attorney Nathan Davis insisted that the city not make the conflict-of-interest argument because it might upset Judge Lockette.
Pait, who was initially suspended with pay and ultimately was fired, pleaded guilty as a first-offender to two misdemeanor theft charges.