Former Telfair sheriff pleads guilty in federal court

DUBLIN — 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 and purchased personal items with county funds.

Williamson, 48, waived his right to indictment by a grand jury and the right to have his case tried by a jury. He 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 county’s two-term limit, agreed to pay restitution of $10,000. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Tanner said receipt books from the sheriff’s office were never recovered, so investigators are not sure how much county money is actually missing.

“Mr. Williamson has made it very difficult for us to do that ... 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,” FBI agent Robert Jones said.

Jones testified Wednesday that a joint investigation by the FBI and GBI alleged that Williamson collected fines that were never paid to the county’s 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 also was accused of accepting money to get a Telfair State Prison inmate transferred to the county jail so 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. He said he accepted the $10,000 restitution figure as a fair estimate.

“There’s probably one person who knows the extent of the malfeasance, and that’s you,” Bowen told Williamson.

Prosecutors allege that Williamson’s misconduct began in January 2004, about the time he began his second term. Jones’ testimony provided some details of the investigation:

Ÿ Former sheriff’s deputy Glenn Giles told investigators that Williamson dropped charges from a traffic stop the deputy had made but kept the fine money with the intent of paying for a party celebrating his re-election. Giles said the party was never held.

Ÿ Giles also said Williamson said he planned to buy shotguns and Tasers with the $5,000 seized in a separate traffic stop but that the items were never purchased. No charges were filed in the case. Williamson testified Wednesday that he believes the money was used to buy cars for the sheriff’s office.

Ÿ Probate Judge Diane Walker and a probate court employee told investigators of four or five instances in which citations and paperwork were turned in by the sheriff but fines were not included. They also reported instances in which residents brought receipts to the probate court, showing they had paid the fines to the sheriff’s office but the money was not turned in.

Ÿ A man charged with driving under the influence paid an $850 fine to the sheriff’s office. Williamson reduced the charge to driving too fast for conditions and returned some of the money but did not send the rest to the probate court.

Ÿ Former deputy Johnny Smith, who is now sheriff, arrested a suspect on multiple counts of theft by taking involving automobiles. The man was released on a $15,000 cash bond. Later, while incarcerated in Telfair State Prison, the man asked Williamson to get him transferred to the county jail, saying it would be “worth something to him.” The bond money was never deposited in a sheriff’s office account, and eventually $6,500 was given back to the suspect. Williamson received $4,200, and $4,300 was sent to the court.

Ÿ Williamson used county funds to buy a 2006 Polaris ATV for $6,100. He twice refinanced the loan for the four-wheeler, with the second loan on Aug. 20, 2008, also intended to buy another ATV. Investigators recovered the four-wheeler at Williamson’s home in Milan. “The interviews we conducted indicated that the four-wheeler was never used for official business, only personal business,” Jones said.

As terms of his bond, Bowen ordered Williamson to get rid of any firearms he still possessed and to not engage in law enforcement activities. The judge also restricted his travel to within the court’s Southern District of Georgia.

Though Williamson disputed some of the allegations, “he is cooperating fully,” his attorney, Ashley McLaughlin, said after the hearing.

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

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Williamson said outside the courtroom.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.