ATLANTA — A hearing against Twiggs County Probate Judge Kenneth Fowler opened Thursday, with attorneys for the state accusing him of running a slush fund in the county, mistreating defendants and failing to properly exercise the most basic judicial duties.
Fowler and his own attorney said the fund existed well before he became Probate Court judge in 2005, that he did not control it and that he never profited from it. They admitted to mistakes in his courtroom, but they said they stemmed from a lack of training.
Fowler is a high school graduate, a cattle farmer and a former convenience store owner, he and his attorney said. His legal training came from a 40-hour state course for probate judges, they said.
Probate judges — particularly in rural counties such as Twiggs — often aren’t attorneys.
“He was thrown into a situation that he was not prepared for,” Fowler’s attorney, Jon Helton, told a Judicial Qualifications Commission panel Thursday morning.
Fowler said he’s “tried my best to straighten up my act” since the JQC’s investigation began, and that he’s seeking a two-year college degree. Others connected to his office testified to an improvement in his courtroom since the investigation started, and Fowler said he hopes to finish out his current term, which he needs to do to qualify for county retirement benefits.
But attorneys for the state commission, which investigates complaints against judges, are pushing for his removal. He also could be liable for more than $40,000 in attorney fees to cover the state’s costs in the case. Former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers’ law firm is prosecuting the case and, due partly to state budget cuts that have hit the JQC, his office hasn’t been paid yet for this or other similar cases, Bowers said Thursday.
Some of the alleged problems in Fowler’s court center on a “community service account” that he had at least some control over.
Fowler acknowledged Thursday that he allowed defendants convicted of traffic violations to “buy out” the community service portions of their sentences by paying hourly fees into the account.
Eventually, that account grew to more than $80,000, and Fowler spent roughly $36,000 of it, the state’s attorneys said.
The JQC did not present evidence that Fowler stole any of this money, only orders showing that he authorized equipment purchases from it for county agencies — particularly the sheriff’s office. He did not write the actual checks, but issued court orders that led to their being written. A probation officer with the private probation company that works with the county, Middle Georgia Probation, signed the checks, Helton said.
But the JQC also accused Fowler of hiding the account. They presented a letter he wrote the Twiggs County auditor in 2008 disclosing “all bank accounts held in an official capacity by this office.” The community service account was not listed in the letter.
Fowler said he wasn’t trying to hide the account. He just didn’t consider it under his control because he can’t write checks from it, he said.
Fowler overcharged defendants, whom he often berated, for court costs, judicial commission attorneys also said. They said he told some of them to “shut up” and referred to some black defendants as “colored” or “colored boy.” They accused him of a bevy of improper judicial procedures, including telling defendants that they bore the burden of proof in their cases when, in fact, defendants are innocent until proven guilty by the state.
Fowler said he was simply trying to tell defendants that they have the right to present a defense. “I would assume that the burden is on them to present a defense,” he testified.
Fowler is white, but a tour bus of nearly 50 Twiggs County supporters that followed him to downtown Atlanta for Thursday’s hearing was about half-filled with black residents and half with white. Several members of the group said they’ve known Fowler most of his life.
They said he is being treated unfairly, and that any mistakes he’s made from the bench were honest ones.
“I’ve done nothing to be detrimental to Twiggs County, Georgia,” Fowler said Thursday. “I’ve done the best I could do.”
The hearing is scheduled to continue today. It’s not known when a final decision on Fowler’s future will come.
These cases against judges are relatively unusual, and they very rarely play out in public because the JQC’s investigations are sealed until formal charges are filed.
Even so, this is not the first time the commission has investigated a Twiggs County judge. Former Probate Judge David Crenshaw was removed from office in June 2001 after he pleaded guilty to charges of theft by taking and violating his oath of office, which stemmed from a mortgage business he ran from his Probate Court office.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report.
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.