WARNER ROBINS — The Warner Robins mayor and council had a meeting set Tuesday with a Houston County grand jury that was canceled after the district attorney learned about it and advised jurors the meeting was beyond their scope of responsibilities.
Houston County District Attorney Jason Ashford said the grand jury is designed to hear matters related to alleged criminal actions. The grand jury also has investigative power over county offices but not municipalities, Ashford said.
As the legal adviser to the grand jury, Ashford said that he advised the grand jury of its role, and that after a vote among jurors the meeting scheduled with the mayor and council was canceled.
Ashford said he did not know why the mayor and council wanted to meet with the grand jury, only that it was not a criminal matter and that it was beyond the scope of the grand jury.
Never miss a local story.
Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen, City Attorney Jim Elliott and a single member of the council met with the grand jury two weeks ago and without Ashford’s knowledge, Ashford said. Ashford said he does not know what was discussed with the grand jury.
“I think it was a misunderstanding on the role of the grand jury,” Ashford said. “I’m taking the high road.”
As a general rule, Ashford said he never assumes malice for actions that could be attributed to ignorance or misunderstanding.
Shaheen said the June 1 meeting with the grand jury that included himself, Elliott and Councilman John Williams was at the invitation of the grand jury foreman. Shaheen declined to comment on the reasons for the meeting.
Peter Wilkens, the grand jury foreman, declined to comment.
Shaheen said the meeting was a follow-up from a previous invitation from former District Attorney Kelly Burke. Shaheen declined to elaborate.
Burke said the previous invite from the grand jury for Shaheen was not an invitation for Shaheen to appear again.
“I did not consider it an open invitation for him to return to the grand jury,” Burke said. “ If he was invited back by the grand jury foreman that’s a different issue. But it (the previous invitation) wasn’t a standing invitation.”
Elliott declined to comment, saying that in his understanding grand jury proceedings are confidential. Williams also declined to comment, adding that he was declining to comment on the advice of the city attorney.
But Councilman Bob Wilbanks said the whole thing “smells pretty bad.”
Wilbanks said it is “appalling” that city officials went around the district attorney to meet with the grand jury. Shaheen said he didn’t bypass Ashford, but that he came by invitation and that he did know what the proper procedures are for meeting with the grand jury.
Wilbanks said he received a call from a fellow councilman Tuesday that council members were to appear before the grand jury and that he called Ashford. He later received a call from a city employee with a time to appear before the grand jury and called Ashford again.
Wilbanks said he was never told why his presence was being requested before the grand jury. Shaheen said he felt the best way to inform council was to have the entire mayor and council meet with the grand jury.
Wilbanks said he was entitled to know why he and council were being called before a grand jury and should have the opportunity to have legal representation.
Ashford said that the district attorney’s office schedules what goes before the grand jury and that when people are called before the grand jury, it is usually through a subpoena from the district’s attorney’s office or the grand jury itself. Ashford said it was “definitely unusual” that Shaheen, Elliott and Williams met with the grand jury without his knowledge.
But Shaheen said the grand jury may talk about anything it wishes and invite whomever it wants to invite.
Ashford said the District Attorney’s Office is not currently investigating anything criminal involving the city of Warner Robins or any of its officials or employees. Previous cases — an alleged break-in of the mayor’s office shortly after the death of former Mayor Donald Walker, and the handling of an investigation into an illegal tire dump — found no criminal wrongdoing.
Wilbanks said Williams told him a few weeks ago that something was coming down the pike that involved the alleged break-in and the police chief. Police Chief Brett Evans could not be reached for comment.
In recent weeks, the mayor and council members have been at odds with each other over various issues, including the location and plans for a new law enforcement center and the makeup and function of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency.
Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.