Ex-Warner Robins councilman sentenced to 14 months in prison for extortion

Former Warner Robins City Councilman John Williams was sentenced Thursday to 14 months in prison for extortion and related convictions.

He was also ordered to pay $300 in court fines.

In April, a federal jury found Williams, 73, guilty of using his position on council to get a $1,720 kickback from the sale of a $21,000 truck to the Warner Robins Police Department. The sale was halted, and Williams gave the money back to the car salesman after he was questioned by FBI agents who were investigating him.

Williams, who was defeated in the November election, was convicted of extortion under the color of official right, making false statements to FBI agents and tampering with a witness.

Tina Hunt, a federal attorney appointed to represent Williams, said Williams will appeal the conviction.

Williams remains free on a $20,000 bond that includes house arrest. He is expected to surrender voluntarily to the Federal Bureau of Prisons once authorities decide where he will serve his sentence. That determination generally takes four to six weeks, Hunt said.

U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell warned Williams the slightest infraction while he’s out on bond would result in the judge ordering him to be immediately taken into custody.

Treadwell also sentenced Williams to a year of supervised release that includes no firearms once he completes his prison term.

Williams did not comment as he left the federal courthouse in Macon, but he gave reporters a thumbs up as he walked out and again when he was whisked away in a van by Hunt and her staff. His wife and other family members who attended the sentencing hearing left before Williams.

The extortion and tampering convictions each carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while the false statements conviction carried up to five years. But based on federal sentencing guidelines, a presentence report and the fact that Williams had no prior criminal history, the possible sentencing range calculated for Williams was 21 to 27 months, Treadwell said from the bench.

Treadwell took into consideration two variables: Williams’ age and his lifelong conduct that overall had been exemplary, the judge said.

Hunt had sought probation for Williams to include community service. She questioned the benefit of sending a 73-year-old man to prison for a crime in which the money was paid back and for which Williams lost his council position and now incurs “whispers” about him in the community.

Much of her argument reiterated positions taken during the trial noting that the car salesman was a confidential FBI informant whose right to be in the country was based on feeding information to the FBI. Hunt also noted checks and balances within city government resulted in the truck sale being questioned but passed through because, she said, just about everyone except Williams knew he was under investigation.

The defense’s position has been that Williams never denied accepting the money and had brokered other vehicle deals for Signature Auto Sales in exchange for a commission. But the judge noted from the bench that testimony at trial was that Williams had previously attempted to sell his personal vehicle to the city and was told that he could not as a city councilman, and that indicated that he knew better.

Prosecutor Paul McCommon had sought the prison term of 21 to 27 months as he noted was in line with the presentence report. McCommon argued that a prison sentence was needed to promote respect for the law and that Williams had not shown genuine remorse.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said in a news release issued after the court hearing, “This sentence sends a clear message to politicians that citizens will not tolerate corruption under any circumstances.”

Williams’ nephew James Kitchens, who identified himself as a Mississippi attorney and to whom Treadwell referred to as “Judge Kitchens,” testified during the hearing that Williams took him under his wing and “treated me as his own son.”

Kitchens credited Williams as being influential in him becoming the man he is now.

What Williams was convicted of and some of the controversies that Williams was involved in as a councilman do not characterize the man Kitchens said he knows -- representing “only one small part” of a person and not his life’s work.

Kitchens described Williams as a decent, good man who probably was not cut out for political office and did not have the temperament for the job. He noted that Williams raised and provided for a family.

Hunt also told the judge that she agreed with Kitchens that Williams was probably not cut out for political office and that financial troubles with his campaign for re-election likely led to the truck sale.

Williams told the judge what has happened has embarrassed his family, friends, the community and his church.

“I know it’s hurt a lot of people,” said Williams, who asked the judge for a chance to make it up.

Later, after McCommon had argued for prison time, Williams asked to say something else to the judge. Williams talked about how members of his family are police officers, attorneys, judges and have served their country in the military and how he counts every day as a blessing because of his health issues.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Williams also told the judge.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.