Former Telfair sheriff pleads guilty in federal court

Former Telfair County Sheriff Jim Williamson pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge of mail fraud and deprivation of honest services stemming from allegations that he embezzled fine money, accepted bribes from inmates and purchased personal items with county money.

Williamson, 48, waived his right to indictment by a grand jury and the right to have his case tried by a jury, and instead signed a plea agreement. A sentencing date was not set, but he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

As part of the agreement, Williamson, who did not seek re-election last year under the two-term limit, agreed to pay restitution of $10,000.

FBI agent Robert Jones testified Wednesday that a joint investigation by the FBI and GBI alleged that Williamson collected fines that were never paid to the probate court and that he kept $5,000 seized in a traffic stop. The sheriff also mailed a letter and a check drawn from a county account to make a monthly payment on an all-terrain vehicle kept for his personal use, Jones said.

Williamson was also accused of accepting money to get a Telfair State Prison inmate transferred to the county jail so that the inmate "could spend time with his girlfriend," Jones said.

Williamson told U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen that he denied accepting money from the inmate and pocketing the cash from the traffic stop but still wanted to plead guilty.

Jones testified that receipt books from the office could not be found, so investigators were unable to determine exactly how much money Williamson might have embezzled.

"Mr. Williamson has made it very difficult for us to do that,"œ he said, "...without having to track down every citation that was issued in the last eight years and tracking down every person who was issued a citation."

After the hearing, Williamson's attorney Ashley McLaughlin said his client is "cooperating fully."

Williamson was released on $10,000 bond until a sentencing hearing is held.

"I'm just glad it's over," he said outside the courtroom.