Attorney, Sheriff: Legal action not a conspiracy, cover up

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

After confirming the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office did not obtain a search warrant prior to seizing, searching and obtaining pornographic photographs and text messages from a cell phone belonging to David Gibson, formerly the captain of the SCSO Uniform Patrol Division, The Grip has learned of additional activities surrounding the obtaining of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that had kept sealed the Gibson Internal Affairs (IA) investigative report. Additionally, there is an allegation that involvement with that cell phone may have played a role in the effort to seal the Gibson report.

Top SCSO officials including Sheriff Wendell Beam and Capt. Tony Ranieri, who heads the Criminal Investigation Division, have repeatedly stated the Sheriff’s Office was not, nor were they individually, involved in the petition for declaratory judgment – the legal action filed in Superior Court by Ruby King, Beam’s secretary, that was the basis of the TRO – but information obtained through the submission of numerous Open Records requests has cast doubts on those denials.

The IA report was finalized May 19 by Administrative Lt. Ronald Brainard, of the Houston County She rriff’s Office, the agency that conducted the investigation at the request of the SCSO.

It remained in the hands of law enforcement officials until an Open Records request was submitted June 5 by Melanie Bowen, an SCSO employee. That request was honored June 10 with the release of the report.

On June 11, two additional Open Records requests were submitted for the same report, one by local resident, Will Sanders and the second by Tami Riggins, like Bowen, an employee of the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office.

Although the report had been disseminated to Bowen only one day prior, neither Sanders nor Riggins received the report in response to their requests. However, The Grip has learned those Open Records requests were the catalyst for much activity taking place behind the scenes.

Cell phone records indicate that later on the afternoon of June 11, Ranieri placed a phone call to the office of Johnnie Caldwell Jr., the Thomaston attorney who would later file the petition for declaratory judgment seeking the temporary restraining order.

Placed to Caldwell’s cell phone at 4:47 p.m., the approximately four-minute long call was immediately followed by a phone call to the Sheriff’s Office.

During that call, Ranieri spoke to Karen Law, who had been Gibson’s secretary prior to his retirement in lieu of termination. Law is reportedly also the person who removed Gibson’s personal cell phone from his office while he attended an Oct. 2014 staff meeting.

During their conversation, after Ranieri confirmed that Amy Martin, the SCSO records clerk, had a copy of the Open Records request submitted by Sanders earlier that day, he told Law to fax a copy to Caldwell’s office.

“If you don’t mind addressing the cover sheet to Johnnie Caldwell, fax that request to him,” he instructed.

Law said she would do so and Ranieri continued, “Now, I’m going to need one of y’all – whoever wants to do this – has got to call. He’s (Caldwell) got to use at least one of y’all right now in order to get the uh, get it before the court, so whoever wishes to do this right off the bat, let me know in the morning so that I can call Judge Caldwell and tell him that you or whoever is gonna do it because he has to use one of y’all as the complainant, actually as the plaintiff in order to start the process. Then he said we can bring the rest of them in.”

Law confirms the information she is to fax to Caldwell, and once again says she will fax it as requested.

“Oh, Okay. All right, I’ll fax it to him right now,” Law said.

Ranieri continued, “And then y’all figure out who’s gonna be your voice, at least for in the morning anyway.”

Law responded, “All right. All right. I’ll do it,” and Ranieri concludes the call by telling Law, “Well, get it rolling.”

Records received from Spalding County also indicate County Attorney Jim Fortune was actively working on the matter of the Gibson report. Fortune later billed for time he spent researching sealing the record on the same day Sanders and Riggins submitted their Open Records requests.

Fortune’s June invoice included two related line item charges for June 11 – “Call requestor of Open Records to discuss disclosure,” and “Research requestor’s ability to seal Open Records disclosed.”

At that time, Bowen was the only person to whom the record had been disclosed.

On June 12, Fortune charged Spalding County for a “telephone conference with Melanie Bowen regarding sealing Gibson report” and for a telephone conference with Jim Grubiak, lead legal counsel at Association County Commissioners Georgia, “regarding sealing records.”

The morning of June 12 is also when SCSO Records Clerk Martin emailed Johnnie Caldwell, providing him with King’s name and contact information and a copy of Sanders’ Open Records request.

Only 37 minutes after Martin sent that email, Caldwell called King and the two discussed options for sealing the Gibson investigative report.

During Caldwell and King’s conversation, King attempted, but was unsuccessful, in an attempt to convince another female SCSO employee to serve as the petitioner in the legal action against the Sheriff’s Office and Beam. King then told Caldwell he could use her for that purpose. (For a transcript of that phone call, please visit http://www.the-grip.net.)

Meanwhile, also on June 12, Riggins placed a phone call to the county attorney’s office and spoke with Jim Fortune to question why her Open Records request was being denied.

According to Riggins, Records Clerk Martin informed her the information requested – the Gibson investigative report – would not be released based on the petition for declaratory judgment, but that legal action had not yet been filed.

“I put in a request – an ORR – for the internal investigation on Capt. Gibson. I filed that yesterday. The Open Records custodian (Martin) here just came in and told me that they’re not releasing it because they’ve sent it to Johnnie Caldwell, because he was supposed to be doing a petition to get the names redacted. Now, that’s (the report) already gone out once because another person here at the department already has a copy of it, so I’m a little confused,” Riggins said to Fortune, later asking. “Is it an open record or is it not an open record?”

After Fortune asked Riggins who she had spoken to, she said, “Amy Martin just came in and told me that they weren’t releasing it, because mine’s actually a second. They had another person request it yesterday and then I put my request in yesterday, as well, and now they’re telling me I can’t have it.”

Fortune told Riggins he would check into the matter, saying, “Who hired…okay, I’ll call Amy.”

Riggins responded, “Well, that’s what I asked Amy. I said, well who has retained Johnnie Caldwell? And she said, well no one to my knowledge. No one’s retained an attorney, so…”

However, that same day’s conversation between Caldwell and King made clear that someone had previously arranged for Caldwell to handle the legal issue, as Caldwell had prior knowledge of the issue and told Beam’s secretary he would be providing his legal services in the matter pro bono – at no charge to her – to help the department and some of the people there.

The following business day, Monday, June 15, Caldwell filed the petition for declaratory judgment using King as the petitioner and obtained a temporary restraining order from Superior Court Judge Mac Crawford.

The petition, which King signed under oath, stated in part, “In May of 2015, a complaint of sexual harassment and hostile work environment was lodged against Captain David Gibson, an employee of Respondent Beam. The complaint alleged that Gibson had made sexually explicit statements to certain female employees, to include petitioner, of Respondent Beam.”

However, King’s sworn petition differed from her statement to Brainard, the investigator who conducted the Internal Affairs investigation.

In Brainard’s report, he cited his interview with King and stated, “King substantiated that Captain Gibson is unprofessional in the manner that he talked to employees; that he did use profanity to anyone, that he did make sexual comments or innuendos, but did not really direct them towards her. She opined that was because she would not stand for it and because of her position working directly for the Sheriff.”

Despite that discrepancy, Beam’s legal response, which he also signed under oath, agreed with King’s petition.

Beam’s response was filed by County Attorney Fortune following a conversation between Fortune and King.

On the morning of June 15, only one hour after Caldwell filed King’s petition, Fortune called the Sheriff’s Office to speak with Beam. The call was transferred to King, who said the Sheriff was out of the office, and she would have him call Fortune upon his return.

The following is a transcript of the conversation that ensued between Fortune and King.

Fortune: Would you? This deals with this business with Capt. Gibson and the declaratory judgment action.

King: Yeah, where Judge Caldwell came by there and talked to uh, I think he talked to, was it Dallas?

Fortune: Bill Dallas, yeah. (Bill Dallas is an attorney in Fortune’s law firm.) Let me ask you a question. I’m assuming that Wendell doesn’t have a problem with us agreeing with Johnnie and going along with him.

King: No, no, no. He doesn’t have a problem at all.

Fortune: Good. I just wanted to make sure. I don’t need to speak to Wendell then.

King: Okay. Now actually, I’m the petitioner of it, so…

Fortune: Oh. Oh, hey Ruby. Well, how are you?

King: (laughter) I’m good. Thank you.

Fortune: I didn’t know. Well, great. Okay. Super. I’m gonna call Johnnie. Do you know where Johnnie is?

King: He was supposed to be on his way to Thomaston to speak Judge Crawford.

Fortune then asks King for Caldwell’s cell phone number, which she provides him and they end the call.

Caldwell was later asked about the disparity in King’s petition and statement to Brainard, and whether it was his contention that King had been sexually harassed by Gibson.

“The petition would have to speak for itself. I can’t tell you about conversations I’ve had with my client,” Caldwell responded.

Asked if he had engaged in discussion with anyone else from the Sheriff’s Office by whom he was not retained as an attorney, Caldwell said, “I can’t tell you that, ma’am. I can’t tell you that. That’s having to do with my work process in representing Miss King.”

He also responded to questions regarding his voluntary dismissal of the temporary restraining order, citing a separate Open Records request submitted to Spalding County by The Grip.

“It was my understanding that there’d been a new Open Records request filed with the county commissioners and they had released it. That was my information. Well, if it’s already out there, then it’s out there, you know?” he said, later adding, “The only reason I dismissed it, as I told you, was because I understood it had already been released, so it’s foolish to keep something not released when it’s already been released. That’s foolishness.”

This was Caldwell’s response despite having been informed during his first conversation with King that the Sheriff’s Office had already released the report he was now seeking to have sealed.

During that initial call, King told Caldwell, “We had one person, which was actually Melanie (Bowen), who was one of the people that was interviewed, she actually requested a copy of it, and they went ahead and had given her a copy because she was involved in it and we didn’t fear her.”

Caldwell responded strongly at the end of The Grip’s interview, stating, “I’m asking you now, what’s the big deal about this? It’s like there’s some big conspiracy with somebody and I’m not aware of it.”

The Grip later attempted to reach Caldwell to question him about the fact that he had full knowledge that the Gibson report had already been released prior to his obtaining the temporary restraining order, but he did not return calls seeking comment.

During a later conversation with Ranieri, The Grip obtained information alleging King was strongly motivated to have the Gibson investigative record sealed, and that her motivation was linked to her involvement with Gibson’s personal burner phone.

The Grip has also learned it was from that phone that graphic pornographic photographs and text messages had been retrieved without a search warrant.

During the Internal Affairs investigation against himself, Gibson claimed he received a text message after this phone was taken from his office that said, “Resign, retire or be divorced.”

In a later interview about the restraining order, Ranieri said, “Yeah, and I know everybody’s trying to attach it back that the Sheriff wanted it sealed. He’s not the one that wanted it sealed. Ruby’s the one that wanted it sealed. She was very upset when we started getting Open Records requests on this, and you know, she had reason to, you know, because of the pictures in the phone. I don’t know if you’re aware of that or not, but you should have read that in the report.”

The Grip responded by askng, “Yeah, that she had seen the pictures in the phone?”

Ranieri replied, “She’s (King) the one that took pictures, er, the phone, made the pictures and she’s also the one that supposedly sent the phone to I believe Mrs. Gibson or Capt. Gibson’s daughter…..that sh*t back in December wound up getting sent to Gibson’s daughter. She (King) had a lot of reasons that she didn’t want it (the report) out there.”

Beam steadfastly denies any involvement with the petition that sealed the Gibson investigative report, most recently stating, “I have not tried to cover this up. I will not try to cover anything up at the Sheriff’s Office. We will do things fairly and according to the law.”

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Comments

  1. Sounds to me like someone didn’t want to be caught with their hands in the cookie jar and they are very much all in it.

  2. Beverly Brown says:

    So how much county money was paid to Jim Fortune for all this advice? All to protect the identity of thieves and scandalmongers?

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