Georgia Camden County Probate Judge Shirley Wise has pleaded guilty to three felony charges and resigned her judgeship this week — the state’s eighth jurist to leave office for misconduct. What is astonishing is the decision to allow Wise to avoid any jail time given her confession to theft by taking, theft by deception, and violation of her oath of office.
Wise, 56, accepted a plea agreement offered by special prosecutor Brian M. Rickman, to serve seven years on probation on the theft counts and five years’ probation on the violation of oath of office count — to be served concurrently. She will also pay a $1,000 fine and make $5,500 restitution to the county. That is a remarkably generous deal given the allegations originally brought against her.
Rickman insists that the plea was motivated in part because Probate Judge Martin Gillette was deemed the victim in the case and refused to assist the prosecution, Gillette was considered the victim because some of the fees that Wise took should have gone to Gillette. However, he refused to help the prosecution and did not want Wise charged. I fail to understand why a public corruption case would turn on whether another judge is willing to cooperate with prosecutors. It is equally remarkable to read about a judge refusing to assist the state in the prosecution.
The allegations against Wise are extremely serious. The prosecutors insist that Probate Court employee Patsy Kennedy was hired to reorganize the office’s vital records vault to increase the capacity. Between May 2009 and August 2010, Kennedy did the work and billed the county $11,250 as a contractor. Wise allegedly got $5,500 of the money paid to Kennedy. That is an astonishing criminal act for a judge and people routinely go to jail for stealing a fraction of that value.
Wise is accused of inducing the submission of false invoices for the kickbacks. She also instructed a court employee forge Gillette’s signature on a documents and in another case to cut Gillette’s signature from a document and affix it to another document.
She is also accused of accepting cash payments for vital record filings and keeping the money. She was accused of later shredding or destroying the original receipts that were evidence of the payments.
I am flabbergasted that no jail time was required for such corruption. I am also shocked by the position of Gillette who will continue as a judge. He seemed entirely unaffected by the range of criminal conduct alleged in the case and unconcerned by the implications of a judge refusing to assist the prosecution. He stated “I lost my chief clerk, I lost my assistant judge, I lost my election manager, I lost my chief [vital records] register all at one lick.’’
Gillette has a long history with Wise, who he hired to work as chief clerk the day he took office 20 years ago. He called her work “excellent.” Well, except for that little kickback thing, I assume.
As for Wise, her lawyer insisted that she pleaded guilty out of concern for the taxpayer and “did this for the mitigation of expenses to Camden County and taxpayers.” Given the generosity of this plea, I would have thought it was to avoid a long jail sentence.
Both Gillette and Rickman have much to explain in the case. I do not blame Wise’s lawyer for securing a great deal or Wise in accepting it. I just fail to understand why it was offered or how a sitting judge could refuse to cooperate with prosecutors in a judicial corruption case regardless of his personal feelings. I do not understand why Gillette believed no charges should be brought in the case given Wise’s confession and the facts cited in the charges. Either she accepted kickbacks or did not. If she did, I cannot understand how a sitting judge could refuse to cooperate as suggested by Rickman.
The case creates a serious problem of the appearance of favoritism when prosecutors seek jail terms for thieves in cases involving a few hundred dollars while a judge guilty of kickbacks worth thousands is allowed to avoid any jail time. Stealing a flat screen television involves far less planning than a kickback scheme coupled with alleged forgery and destruction of evidence.