By Kevin Hogencamp
Albany State University’s ombudsman and a high-profile Columbus attorney are being investigated for allegedly deceiving officials during an ASU student’s defense of a marijuana possession charge.
Dougherty Judicial Circuit District Attorney Greg Edwards refuses to discuss the matter or produce any public records associated with the case, saying that doing so could jeopardize legal proceedings. He said Tuesday that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently began investigating the case; court records, meanwhile, say that Edwards initially launched a probe in August 2010.
Two allegations of deception or fraud are at issue:
■ A June 2, 2010 letter from ASU Director of Student Affairs Gwinetta Trice claiming that her investigation determined that arrested ASU student Deona Lakes did not violate the school’s drug policy. The letter contradicts the stance of the ASU Police Department, which charged Deona Lakes with possessing less than an ounce of marijuana in March 2010. Dougherty State Court Judge John Salter says in public records that the letter is suspicious.
■ In a court order removing himself from Lakes’ case, Salter accuses one of Lakes’ attorneys, Columbus’ J. Mark Shelnutt, of attempting to defraud the court. Salter says that Shelnutt presented Trice’s letter to the court in August 2010 and attempted last week to file paperwork with the court indicating that the marijuana case was dropped by the District Attorney’s Office. Shelnutt, who is under indictment in Columbus on drug charges, says he did nothing deceptive or fraudulent..
As the student affairs director, Trice operates ASU’s Ombuds Office, which is an agent for justice by helping students and staff members who think they have been treated unfairly.
Trice’s letter defending Lakes is a mystery; it is not filed in State Court records and Edwards, Salter, Trice and ASU President Everette Freeman refused Tuesday to produce it. ASU spokesman Clifford Porter, though, said ASU would produce the letter within three days, as required by Georgia’s Open Records Law.
Also unanswered is how Trice reached her conclusion about Lakes being cleared in a student affairs investigation into her conduct, and the status of Edward’s office’s probe, which begin in August 2010, according to public records.
The matter climaxed last week when Salter removed himself from the case and Lakes’ trial was held before Magistrate Court Judge Robert Revell. A mistrial was declared due to a procedural error; the case has been rescheduled for trial Aug. 22.
Salter says in his Aug. 9, 2011 court order that on Aug. 23, 2010, Assistant District Attorney Victoria Johnson recommended that Lakes’ case be dismissed. With her recommendation, Johnson produced Trice’s letter, “which stated that a ‘thorough investigation’ found that Ms. Lakes, Defendant, was ‘not in violation’ of A.S.U.’s drug policy,” Salter said in the court order.
“Initially, I signed the nolle pros (Latin for ‘will not prosecute’) on this case, and placed the file on my secretary’s desk for delivery to the Clerk’s Office for closure,” Salter wrote. “Only minutes later, I retrieved the file because I had concerns about the authenticity of the letter used to support the request for nolle pros. I read the incident report prepared by the arresting officer that was in the file and had my suspicions raised further.
“At that point, I took the file personally to Ms. Victoria Johnson, the prosecutor handling the matter and told her that although I had signed the nolle pros, that she should not file it until she had inquired of the investigating officer if the letter was authentic and was based on participation in the alleged on-campus investigation into this incident. I told her if her inquiry of the officer led her to conclusion of authenticity that she should file the nolle pros and close the case. Contrariwise, if further inquiry led her to believe that Ms. Trice’s letter was not as represented that she should ‘mark through’ the nolle pros and proceed with the case.”
Salter said that several weeks later, Johnson notified him that Lakes’ prosecution was continuing and that Ms. Trice’s letter was under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.
Last week, Salter said, Shelnutt attempted to file paperwork with the Clerk of Court’s office indicating that the case indeed had been dismissed in August 2010.
“These actions led this Court to the conclusion that Mr. Shelnett has attempted to commit a fraud upon this Court,” Salter wrote.
Salter said in the court order that he is filing a Georgia Bar Association complaint against Shelnutt.
In court records filed Aug. 10, the day of Lakes’ trial and a day after Salter removed himself from the case, Shelnutt’s law partner said that Lakes’ prosecution effectively ended on Aug. 23, 2010 because Salter signed the nolle pros. At the time, Lakes was represented by public defender Betty Moore; Shelnutt says when Lakes later sought to hire a defense attorney, his firm was selected because Lakes’ family is from Columbus.
“Neither the Defendant, her Defense Attorney or her current Attorneys are clear when the District Attorney’s Office decided to attempt to undo the signed nolle pros and maintain the case against the Defendant was revived,” attorney William Kendrick wrote. “The Record is void concerning any petition to the Court or by vacation of any Order of the consented nolle pros.
“What is clear, supported by the Original Accusation, is that the document has been altered from its original state and a number of lines drawn through where the Assistant District Attorney’s reasoning for requesting the nolle pros stood. The reasoning is still clearly legible.”
The reasoning cited for the nolle pros was Trice’s letter claiming that an ASU investigation cleared Lakes of wrongdoing.
In an interview Tuesday, Shelnutt says he was making an inquiry with the Clerk of Court and not attempting to commit fraud by filing the original motion to nolle pros. Shelnutt also said he has never heard of a judge or a judge’s designee altering court records by striking through a portion of the record.
“I’ve been practicing law for 23 years and have had my share of being treated like a dog, but I’ve never had a judge treat me like Judge Salter did,” Shelnutt said.
Shelnutt also says that Salter mistakenly wrote in his court order that Shelnutt is Lakes’ lead attorney.
An ASU police report says that a police officer saw Lakes remove a clear plastic bag with marijuana in it and place it in a gym bag. At the time, the officer was investigating Lakes’ report that her car had been vandalized, the report said.
Shelnutt said his client is innocent. He says that her car was stolen, vandalized and returned. Whoever took the car left marijuana in it, he said.
“Somebody had gone joy riding,” he said.
Shelnutt says he was unaware until being informed by The Albany Journal on Tuesday that the GBI is involved in the matter.
“If they are doing that, how are we going to be able to try the case? … I don’t understand,” he said. “I’m just in absolute and complete shock.”
Shelnutt’s first job out of college was as an Albany prosecutor in 1988. He then worked as a Columbus prosecutor and Recorder’s Court judge before entering private practice.
In 2009, a federal jury in Columbus acquitted Shelnutt of 31 counts of money laundering, conspiring to launder money, aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy, lying to federal agents, intimidating a grand jury witness, failing to report cash transactions over $10,000 and the attempted bribery of a federal prosecutor.
Last year, Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged Shelnutt with eight felony counts of drug distribution for allegedly giving 11 prescription pills over a two-month period last summer to a friend who turned out to be an undercover informant. While authorities have not identified the informant, Shelnutt says that it was his former secretary.
Those charges are pending.
Salter, Edwards and ASU officials refused this week to answer questions about the case, and The Albany Journal’s e-mail, phone call and Facebook messages to Trice were not returned.
Lakes also could not be reached Tuesday for comment.