Houston & Peach

Warner Robins official is appealing his suspension after being indicted. He says he’s innocent.

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There is a difference between the evidence needed to make an arrest and the evidence needed for prosecutors to get a conviction. Jimmy Richardson, a solicitor, explains the difference between the two.
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There is a difference between the evidence needed to make an arrest and the evidence needed for prosecutors to get a conviction. Jimmy Richardson, a solicitor, explains the difference between the two.

A Warner Robins city official who was suspended after being accused of criminal misconduct has requested a hearing before the mayor to appeal his suspension.

Gary Lee, 54, the city’s economic development director, is on suspension without pay, after his indictment on a felony charge of making a false statement to a sheriff’s investigator during a criminal investigation.

On Friday, Mandy Stella, executive assistant to the mayor and public information officer for the city, said in a text to The Telegraph that Lee’s letter requesting a hearing was received Friday. Stella texted to The Telegraph that a date has not yet been set for the hearing.

One of Lee’s attorneys said the suspended director is innocent of charges against him and was, in fact, acting “in the capacity of a whistleblower.”

In a letter to the city obtained by The Telegraph on Friday, Lee’s attorney Preston Lee Haliburton said that Lee was “communicating his concerns over personnel files being published online through anonymous sources.”

It’s not clear what personnel files the attorney was referring to in the letter.

Haliburton also said in the letter that the criminal charges were based on a “misunderstanding.”

Lee, who was also indicted on two misdemeanor counts of false report of a crime, is free on a $5,000 bond pending trial.

“There’s something wrong when an innocent citizen like Gary to be accused of a crime for something he allegedly said. Gary wants to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen to anyone else again,” Haliburton said earlier by telephone Friday.

The charges against Lee stem from a June investigation by the Houston County sheriff’s office into allegations of possible criminal misconduct allegedly made by Lee against another city employee within the same department. Lee had taken those allegations to Mayor Randy Toms.

Lee was interviewed by a city police detective and then the sheriff’s office was asked to investigate, Toms also previously said. The investigative findings were reviewed by the district attorney’s office, which took the case before the grand jury for consideration. The grand jury handed up the indictment against Lee late last month.

“It’s our position that he brought a concern to his superior and that he ended up getting arrested for something that he allegedly said or didn’t say ... It’s our position that did not rise to any level of criminal intent — that he was addressing a concern to his employer as he’s required to do,” Haliburton said.

When asked to elaborate, Haliburton said attorneys are in a fact-gathering mode, but that Lee “looks forward to proving his innocence in a court of law.”

Haliburton would like to see the charges dismissed against Lee.

“We believe the district attorney … is a fair, mutual, detached individual, and we think once he gets all the facts, we think it quite possibly could be dismissed,” Haliburton said.

District Attorney George Hartwig could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

On the false statement charge, Lee is accused of telling sheriff’s Cpl. Eric Salter during a criminal investigation on June 20 that he did not sign his name to a city of Warner Robins Alcohol and Control Substance Policy consent and notice form. The March 26 indictment alleged that Lee did sign the form.

Lee also allegedly caused the false report of a crime to be given to Warner Robins police Detective Brett Rozier on June 6, according to the indictment. The alleged crime was second-degree forgery, the indictment states.

Additionally, Lee allegedly caused the false report of a crime be given to Salter on June 20, the indictment states. That alleged crime was the “execution of false notarial certificate” by Kimberly Black, according to the indictment. Black’s Linkedin account lists her as a project manager for the city’s economic development department.

Special conditions of Lee’s bond include no direct or indirect contact with Black and “no crimes of fraud, forgery or false statements,” the bond order states.

An arraignment date for Lee has not yet been set.

Under the city ordinances, the mayor — and not council — is charged with determining whether disciplinary action is warranted when a department head is indicted, according to City Attorney Jim Elliott.

Section 18-44 of Warner Robins city ordinances provides for appropriate disciplinary action, including suspension without pay pending resolution of an indictment. The indicted employee is to be afforded an opportunity for a hearing before the mayor to contest the suspension, according to the ordinance.

There’s also provision for an indicted employee to continue working “if the conduct resulting in the criminal charges is completely unrelated to city employment and will not be likely to damage the employer-employee relationship,” the ordinance said.

Toms declined comment Friday through Stella. Toms previously said he planned to consult with council members before making his decision. The ordinance requires that he consult with human resources, and, if needed, the city attorney, to determine appropriate action based on city ordinances.

“Mr. Lee has been told he will remain on unpaid leave until the criminal case against him is resolved,” Stella said in a text.

The suspension went into effect April 5, according to Stella.

In the suspension letter dated that same Friday, Toms told Lee that he understands the charges “stem from a June 2018 incident related to documents under the city’s alcohol and substance abuse policy and your subsequent interviews with city and Houston County law enforcement personnel.”

Toms also told Lee that he was suspending him based on the part of the ordinance that provides “if the conduct resulting in the criminal charges does not relate directly to the duties of the position held, but is of a serious and aggravated nature so as to interfere with the employment relationship or embarrass the city, the employee may be suspended without pay pending disposition of charges.”

Lee’s annual salary as economic development director is just over $82,600, according to city records. He’s been employed with the city since June 21, 2007. His brother, Daron Lee, serves as a Warner Robins city councilman.

The indictment was not connected to a prior GBI investigation into an alleged threat made by Lee against Warner Robins Housing Authority CEO Sheryl Frazier. The district attorney’s office reviewed the investigative findings and did not pursue any charges.

During an Aug. 13 meeting, Lee “essentially said, ‘I’m going to cut her head off,’ ” while talking about Frazier, according an October news release from the district attorney’s office. Lee was suspended without pay for two weeks.

Lee’s Warner Robins attorney Jeff Grube declined comment Friday.