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Posted: February 9, 2012 10:02 p.m.

Covington court undergoes shake-up

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David Strickland

The Covington City Council's decision to not reappoint a longtime municipal court judge came on the heels of a lengthy email from a former probation company employee accusing the judge of allowing a romantic relationship at work to taint his judgment and actions.

That email came from a former employee of East Georgia Correctional Services, which chose not to submit a new bid for service following an audit released last month that said the company pursued some probationers even years after their sentences had ended and didn't properly enforce other probation sentences.

The City Council received a several-hundred word email Feb. 1 accusing Municipal Court Judge C. David Strickland of "unethical and unprofessional behavior," and five days later voted 4-2 not to reappoint Strickland but didn't share its reasoning.

In that email, Jennifer Hartman alleges Strickland let a romantic relationship with ex-East Georgia employee Mary Trammell inappropriately influence his decisions. The email and several other city documents were obtained through an open records request.

Strickland, a local lawyer, denied Wednesday that his actions were improper, questioned the timing of Hartman's email and said he was surprised the council didn't seek his take, considering he had never heard any concerns from either the city or public.

Some of the statements in Hartman's email are accurate, according to independent documents; however, some of her statements appear to be inaccurate or cannot be proved.

In her email, Hartman blames Strickland for East Georgia Correctional not having its contract renewed and her losing her job.

City officials said they decided to bid out the probation services contract for the first time in several years because the contract had changed over the years and was costing the city more than it originally did. East Georgia handles municipal probation cases, but it does not supervise workers' community service; that task is handled by city employees. The city was previously reimbursed for this supervision, but not under the latest version of the contract, said Administrative Services Director Ronnie Cowan.

In addition, East Georgia also had two audits, in 2010 and 2012, of its policies and procedures, which asked several questions about the company's practices and record keeping.

Strickland was judge for 16 years, while Fran Martin, owner of East Georgia, has been providing probation services to the city for 14 years; East Georgia was formed in 2005, but Martin worked for another company that also contracted with Covington previously.

Complaints against Strickland
Strickland said that after separating from his wife, he and Trammell began their relationship in 2009. Later that year on Sept. 3 Trammell was charged by the Covington Police Department with a traffic violation for following too closely, after she caused an accident. Traffic violations make up the majority of cases heard in municipal court.

However, Trammell's violation was dismissed at the recommendation of the police officer who worked the accident, because Trammell had paid for all of the victim's damages. The dismissal order was signed by Strickland; Trammell was still working for East Georgia at the time.

In her email, Hartman alleges that not only was Trammell cited for a hit and run, instead of following too closely, but said the victim was threatened to dissuade her from pursuing any further action. Municipal Court Clerk Stephanie Finney said Thursday that Trammell was never charged with a hit and run.

"Although it may be common for tickets to be dismissed, they should not be dismissed by the defendant's partner or any other personal companion," Hartman said.

Strickland said he signed the dismissal at the recommendation of the police officer, a common practice, and that nobody objected to him doing so at the time. The dismissal could have been assigned by a municipal court judge in a different city, but Strickland said that didn't seem necessary.

Cowan said he asked Strickland about the incident, and the city reviewed other cases and saw that they were similarly handled. Four additional cases of following too closely were provided to The News and all of them were reduced to warnings.

Strickland said in retrospect it would have been better had Trammell not been a probation officer while the two of them were in a relationship. However, he did not see a conflict of interest as the two only had official contact each Wednesday during court.

The municipal judge is the one who selects the probation services company, meaning Strickland hired East Georgia; however, he said probation officers worked more closely with the solicitor, or prosecutor, than with him.

The other major complaint lobbed against Strickland by Hartman is that he became difficult to work with after Trammell was fired from East Georgia Correctional for stealing money from the company.

Trammell was charged Dec. 10, 2009, with 17 counts of theft by conversion and three counts of forgery first degree after allegedly stealing $2,685 and altering money order payments made by probationers, according to Newton County Superior Court documents.

She eventually pleaded guilty May 27, 2010, in a negotiated sentence to two counts of forgery in the first degree and one count of theft by conversion, all felonies. She was given first offender treatment, ordered to pay back the full $2,685, which she had already done, and was fined $3,000 and given three separate 10-year probation sentences to be served concurrently. She is still making payments, the latest of which were dated Feb. 8.

Strickland added in a phone interview Thursday that Martin told him and court Solicitor Qadar Baig about Trammell's theft. He and Baig then informed the Covington Police Department about Trammell's crime. Police Chief Stacey Cotton confirmed Thursday that Strickland notified the department.

Although he was involved with Trammell, Strickland said that he stopped seeing her until she had paid back all the money she had stolen.

However, one of the theft by conversion counts to which Trammell pleaded guilty was a case where she altered the money order of a man and replaced his name with that of Kristy Gaines, another probationer. Hartman implied in her email that Strickland dismissed the remainder of Gaines' fine and probation charges because of his relationship with Trammell.

As Gaines' probation officer, Hartman said she agreed in 2009 and 2010 to forgive $47 Gaines owed in probation fees, but said Gaines still owed the final $15 to the city from her original $420 fine. Probation fees are charged on top of the fines from the crimes themselves.

Hartman said Gaines refused to pay the $15 and when Hartman passed that information on to the judge, she said both he and Baig agreed to waive the $15 balance if Gaines would sign a notarized letter stating she would not take any further action on the matter.

"How is this fair to other offenders on probation who are required to pay all of their fine money?" Hartman wrote in her email.

Hartman said Strickland refused to sign that deal. Hartman attached the document to her email, but it's unclear whether the story is true as the document is not signed by either the judge or probation officer. Hartman also attached a notarized letter signed by Gaines; however, Finney said that letter was never presented to her.

As best he could remember, Strickland said he turned the case of the $15 fine over to Conyers municipal court Judge Terry Massey. Finney said she did not believe that Massey ever signed the document either. She added that fines and payments, ranging from $15 up to $1,800 or more, are frequently written off when warranted.

Hartman goes on to state that Strickland no longer openly communicated with probation staff after Trammell's firing.

"From that point forward...my interaction with the Covington Municipal Court has changed dramatically and become nothing short of a roller-coaster ride filled with unethical and unprofessional behavior," Hartman said. "The policies and procedures required by the court have changed on a daily basis."

Martin wrote a letter to the city in September 2010 taking issue with many of the changes made in 2010, including the addition of extra forms that needed to be filled out and the fact that all paperwork had to be passed through the court clerk before being given to the judge to sign.

Issues with East Georgia Correctional
However, Strickland said he instituted the new policies for two reasons. The first reason is that the probation office was not properly handling some of its cases, said Strickland. The most alarming example was that the probation office threatened to issue warrants for arrest to probationers after their probation had expired. Once the probation period has expired, the probationer no longer has to make payments and cannot be arrested.

One case included in a February 2010 audit report cited East Georgia as still actively working a case from February 2005, despite the probation period only being listed as six months.

In a follow-up audit from Jan. 25 of this year, the supervising agency, County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council, recommended that East Georgia discontinue working all expired probation cases. If a person who does not pay his fines or complete his community service in time, he should be sent back to court, the audit said.

"This reflects a systematic concern where conditions of probation are not enforced from multiple facets," the audit states.

Another note in the audit deals with a case where East Georgia did not send the required $9 fee to the state's Georgia Crime Victims Emergency Fund.

The audits also stated East Georgia had inconsistencies in its reporting and handling of cases.

Strickland questioned why Hartman's email came at the time it did, just days after the findings of the 2012 audit.

The other reason for Strickland's new policies is that Martin began to complain to the city about Strickland not signing documents in a timely fashion, he said. That prompted Strickland to have the court clerk also look at documents, so that another person was reviewing documents, including those that shouldn't be signed for one reason or another.

Strickland said the court became more professional and less informal than previously and this apparently upset Martin.

Martin's complaints and the audits prompted the city to look into the existing probation contract, Cowan said. This dovetailed with the city's strategic planning efforts, which called for it to review all long-term contracts. When the city saw it was no longer being reimbursed for supervising probationers, it decided to put out a request for proposal (RFP) to all probation companies in Georgia.

East Georgia did not submit a proposal. The company did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday afternoon. Hartman said in her email that the city didn't want East Georgia to bid, but City Manager Steve Horton refutes that in an internal email.

"I do not agree with Ms. Hartman's comments that there was some intent on the part of the city (to) exclude or prohibit the current probation company from submitting a proposal," Horton said in a Feb. 1 email. "If anything, Ms. Martin excluded her company by choosing not to submit a proposal."

City staff is working through the proposals it received and expects to present finalists to the council Feb. 20.

Moving forward
Paul Oeland, Strickland's divorce attorney, said Wednesday that some city administrative officials had discussed the complaints, both personal and professional, with Strickland well before Feb. 1.

"No one has ever said (Strickland) gave Mary preferential treatment as a probation officer in front of him. I know of no allegations that say the probationers that she was in charge of got better or worse treatment because of you," Oeland said, referring to Strickland. "Never has anybody said it impacted the decisions you made on the bench. The complaints are about your ability to administer your court; your complaints aren't about your ability as a judge."

Strickland said he was disappointed that the only burden of proof the city needed to not reappoint him was a single letter, but he wished the court and city well.

The council appointed attorney Ben Hendricks Monday to be the temporary municipal court judge by a 5-1 vote, and the city plans to bid out that position as well.

The municipal court judge makes $28,000 a year. Municipal court meets every Wednesday and hears minor traffic infractions, parking citations and city ordinance violations issued within the city limits of Covington. The court does not handle civil or small claims cases. The Covington courtroom is located in the Covington Police Department, 1143 Oak St.

East Georgia Correctional is located at 6142 Gordy St. in Covington.

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