Augusta legislator convicted of fraud, Guilty on 127 counts: Sen. Charles Walker
Augusta legislator convicted of fraud, Guilty on 127 counts: Sen. Charles Walker removed from office
By JAMES SALZER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/04/05
Augusta — State Sen. Charles Walker, once among the most powerful African-Americans in state politics, was convicted in federal court Friday of defrauding businesses, a charity and taxpayers in part to pay off gambling debts.
The jury deliberated for 20 hours over three days before convicting Walker on 127 of 137 counts including mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.
The Augusta Democrat is expected to appeal the convictions but is suspended from his Senate duties according to state law. A special election will be called to fill his post.
Walker, 57, showed no emotion when the verdict was read. He was released pending his sentencing, which was not immediately scheduled. The more than 100 mail fraud charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison each and up to a $250,000 fine.
Walker left the federal courthouse surrounded by his lawyers and family members, and declined to speak to reporters before being driven away.
"I'm pretty disappointed," Don Samuel, one of his lawyers, said before leaving with Walker.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goolsby, the chief prosecutor in the case, said, "A lot of hard work went into this and the people have spoken. Justice was served."
Walker and his daughter were indicted last year on charges that they bilked advertisers in his weekly newspaper, the Augusta Focus, misused campaign funds, stole from a charity he created and pressured Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital and the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta into using his personnel businesses. His daughter, Monique, will be tried later.
Prosecutors said Walker, a sharecropper's son who became a multimillionaire, ran up more than $500,000 in casino debts playing $2,400-a-hand blackjack. They charged he used campaign contributions and money stolen from the CSRA Classic, a charity for poor youngsters that Walker founded, to pay his gambling debts.
The government contended Walker inflated the paid circulation of his newspaper by 1,000 percent so he could charge advertisers more.
He was convicted on the counts pertaining to Grady Hospital even though one of the government's star witnesses, former state Sen. Nadine Thomas (D-Ellenwood), recanted on the witness stand her contention that Walker delayed legislation important to Grady to ensure the hospital used his temporary services business.
Walker's companies did more than $2.5 million in business with Grady and the medical college while he served on the legislative committee that writes the final state budget. MCG is a state college and Grady receives major funding from the state through Medicaid, the health program for the poor.
The two-week trial was closely watched at the state Capitol, where Walker wielded significant power through the 1980s and 1990s. Walker rose to Senate majority leader, the third-highest ranking senator, and was a friend and political ally of former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, who testified on his behalf.
Now, one of Walker's most bitter political enemies, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, will call a special election to fill his seat.
"It's always tragic when a public official fails to uphold the ethical responsibilities entrusted in them by the people they serve," commented Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hed- drick.
Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) called it "a good day for the criminal justice system and a bad day for democracy."
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said he regretted the outcome for "the senator and his family. It's a tough time, and I wish him well as he tries to work through this."
Walker's conviction came about a month after another Augusta politician, former Republican state Rep. Robin Williams, was found guilty in the same courthouse of conspiring to defraud $2 million from a mental health center.
A third Augusta-area official, former Republican School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, is expected to face trial this year on charges that she participated in a scheme to steal $600,000 in federal school funds.
Former U.S. Attorney Rick Thompson, who launched the Walker investigation, said, "This verdict along with the Robin Williams verdict shows unequivocally that political corruption has been and can be a bipartisan enterprise."
Walker is the second state Senate heavyweight in the last few years to be convicted of federal crimes. Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson of Savannah, once chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, was convicted in 1999 on mail fraud charges.
Walker was first elected to the state House in 1982, and quickly became a leader in the Legislative Black Caucus. Within a few years he was helping to write the state budget. Walker was an early supporter of Barnes' candidacy for governor, and he was rewarded with access and funding for numerous hometown projects.
He failed to win re-election in 2002, the same year Perdue beat Barnes, but voters returned him to the Senate last year despite the charges pending against him.
Bill Bozarth, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the verdict makes clear that the state needs stronger ethics standards for its elected officials.
"It's not really a victory for anybody when a public official is convicted of this level of misconduct," Bozarth said. "From our point of view, it points out that good ethics laws would have been able to address this kind of conflicted behavior long before it became criminal."