At their Tuesday meeting, Decatur County commissioners voted to pay $5,000 for the legal defense of a former county employee charged with forgery in the first degree.
Camilla attorney Jami Lewis had sent county commissioners an invoice for $5,000, for which she would represent former Sheriff’s Office employee Rachel Trolinger. Lewis said the $5,000 is her retainer for representing Trolinger and said there would be no additional invoices from her. According to County Attorney Brown Moseley, Trolinger has agreed to repay the $5,000 to Decatur County if she is found guilty.
In September, Trolinger was arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and charged with forgery in the first degree. According to Lewis, Trolinger’s case is unrelated to that of the four former and current Sheriff’s deputies who were indicted by a federal grand jury earlier this summer. The accusations against the deputies stem from an incident that happened at Bainbridge Bikefest 2012; Aaron Parrish of Bainbridge has also filed a civil lawsuit naming Sheriff Wiley Griffin, multiple Sheriff’s deputies and Decatur County commissioners as defendants.
At commissioners’ previous meeting, attorney Lewis had argued that the accusation against Trolinger concerns something that happened while she was performing the duties of her job as an administrative assistant at the Sheriff’s Office, where Trolinger worked from June 2010 to June 2014. (Trolinger voluntarily resigned, according to Lewis and county HR records.)
County Commission Frank Loeffler indicated he was hesitant to pay for Trolinger’s defense but the vote was tabled. County Attorney Moseley opened up discussion of the matter on Tuesday night by noting that Lewis had sent a follow-up letter explaining more about the facts of the case. Moseley said it was his opinion after reading the letter that “the facts [of Trolinger’s case] cannot be distinguished between another case in which we have provided legal fees.”
Moseley said he would not offer any recommendation, other than to remind commissioners that their policy regarding payment of county employees’ legal expenses ultimately left the decision up to their discretion. That policy was drafted after commissioners agreed to Sheriff Griffin’s request that they pay for the legal expenses of the indicted deputies. (Commissioners declined to pay a $20,000 invoice for legal defense of Wiley Griffin IV, who was an employee of the Grady County Sheriff’s Office in September 2012; Sheriff Griffin said his family and his wife’s family would pay for their son’s defense).
To date, county commissioners have paid $28,940 to Attorney Josh Bell for representation of Deputy Elizabeth Croley and $28,036 to Polisinelli PC of Kansas City, Mo., for representation of Sheriff Wiley Griffin (who was not indicted but was later named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit) . Attorney Ken Hodges III, who served 12 years as district attorney of the Albany, Ga., judicial circuit, is the attorney working out of Polsinelli’s Atlanta office.
(Note: the invoices described above were included in Decatur County commissioners’ agenda packets for Tuesday’s meeting; other invoices could be sent in the future).
Commissioner Oliver Sellers made a motion to approve payment of Trolinger’s expenses; the motion was seconded by Commissioner Butch Mosely (who was participating in the meeting via telephone) and approved unanimously.
Did county commissioners make legal defense policy too broad in scope?
After the vote, Commissioner Russell Smith said he felt that commissioners had “opened up Pandora’s box” by adopting the legal defense policy and urged commissioners to either rescind the policy altogether or amend it.
Sellers said he believed it was a “good resolution, but might need tweaking. It’s part of doing business.”
When Loeffler asked for Attorney Moseley’s input, the county attorney said that considering the legal fees that the county is dealing with at present, he believed that the policy was “a proper way to authorize attorney fees. It’s had unintended consequences.” Moseley said in his view, it may be time to take a look at revising the policy to detail “options, conditions or limits and further define what you are or are not going to furnish.”
County Administrator Gary Breedlove said the money being paid out because of the legal defense policy was “an unpredictable expense that we cannot estimate. It’s open-ended and I don’t know how we can afford [to pay every request].”
Commissioner Smith said he was torn because commissioners would be criticized severely if they were to pay legal defenses for county employees in some cases but not others, and said he agreed the county couldn’t afford to pay every one. Smith said he figured that the policy could be interpreted to cover any crime committed by a county employee while they were on the job.
Yet another legal defense request?
After discussion of Trolinger’s defense finished, County Attorney Moseley brought up that another county employee had requested assistance with his legal defense in relation to a matter that is unrelated to Trolinger or the indicted Sheriff’s deputies.
According to Moseley, the new request was made by an employee of the Sheriff’s Office who works for the Decatur County Jail, which is under the Sheriff’s purview. Moseley told commissioners that although the employee has not been charged, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has looked into the accusation and the employee has been told the matter will be considered by a grand jury in Decatur County.
Moseley suggested that commissioners allow him to accompany the employee when he appears before the grand jury. The county attorney said if the accusation is “true-billed” (which would lead to formal prosecution), the county could choose whether to pay for a legal defense, and if so, hire an outside attorney. If the accusation is no-billed (the matter is dropped), the county would not have to pay a private attorney’s fees, Moseley said.
The county attorney said he had talked to Sheriff Griffin about representing the jail employee; apparently, the Sheriff did not have any objections.