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Georgia inmates reportedly did work out of state

Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith
defends his handling of the trusty program, in which witnesses say he
used inmate labor on private properties, even taking some to work on
his former wife’s home in South Carolina.

– Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith took jail inmates out of state to
work at his ex-wife’s house and repeatedly used inmate labor in the
county at his girlfriend’s home and on his properties the past several
years, former inmates and other witnesses told the Times-Union.

At least three prisoners were carted to South
Carolina to perform kitchen and bathroom renovations at his former
wife’s house, according to former inmates and an electrician who worked
on the property this year.

They also described work they did at his girlfriend’s St. Marys home and properties owned by Smith.

sheriff used proceeds from federal drug forfeitures to pay the trusties
$50 a week, according to inmates and records obtained by the
Times-Union under Georgia’s Open Records Act. Federal guidelines say
the money can be used only for law enforcement purposes such as
training or equipment.

And under Georgia law, using
inmate labor for personal gain is a felony violation of a sheriff’s
oath of office. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into
Smith’s use of inmate labor.

Smith refused to answer specific questions but defended his trusty program in a statement issued Thursday through his spokesman.

the years the program has proven to be cost effective and is a
tremendous benefit to the citizens of Camden County," Smith said. " …
There are many success stories of inmates who have used their work
experience as trusties as a springboard to making a better life for

But a former federal prosecutor
said the use of inmates for private labor raises liability,
exploitation and tax issues if payroll taxes aren’t withheld from the
inmates’ pay.

"The whole thing reeks," said
attorney Samuel Jacobson of Jacksonville. "Suppose one of these guys
got loose and sexually assaulted a child. Think of the liability to the

Christopher Murphy, 31, said he
worked before his 2005 escape at the sheriff’s wooded hunting camp in
northern Camden County and at a secluded property known as the
Ponderosa south of Woodbine. Murphy, now in prison for the escape and
stealing an unmarked patrol vehicle, said he was unaware of the GBI

But other inmates and their
families and St. Marys electrician Ray Dyals said they have been
interviewed recently by GBI agents. Dyals said he also told the GBI he
was warned about a possible bogus arrest after Smith learned of his

District Attorney Stephen Kelley
requested the GBI investigation in July after Times-Union reporters
observed Camden inmates building a structure without a permit on
private property at Cumberland Island National Seashore.

The probe has expanded since then, according to those who have spoken to investigators.

the past, Smith has said he sees nothing wrong with working inmates on
private property as long as they are paid. Smith also has said
questions about his spending practices are "politically motivated."

He used identical language after
he was charged with six counts of illegally using inmate labor
following a GBI investigation in 1991. Those charges were dropped, and
Smith agreed with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office that he would
no longer work inmates on private property.

County Commission Chairman
Preston Rhodes questioned why Smith broke that promise and said the
information "needs to be pursued to the full extent of the law."

Across state lines

Dyals said he
thought nothing of it when the sheriff asked him to accompany him and
inmate Rodney Mullis to Charleston to prepare Smith’s former wife’s
kitchen for new cabinets.

"He said I’ll have somebody there
to work with us, but I need you there to oversee it," said Dyals, a
friend of the sheriff’s for 30 years. "We’d done it that way before."

Dyals said Mullis, who was being
held on cocaine charges, dressed in street clothes and worked
unsupervised with Dyals while Smith napped in another room of the
Charleston house.

Mullis couldn’t be reached, but his father said Mullis told him he spoke to the GBI.

former inmate said he also detailed for GBI agents two trips he took to
Smith’s ex-wife’s house in 2003 to do plumbing work. The Times-Union
interviewed him in the St. Marys office of his lawyer, J. Robert
Morgan, under the condition he not be named because he fears
retaliation from the sheriff.

In 2003, he said, he was in jail
for stealing tires when the sheriff wanted him and another inmate to
build a handicap-accessible shower and sink for his son at the
Charleston home. The first time he went, he said, a deputy drove him to
the state line, where Smith met them.

He said he and other inmates were
grateful to be paid for their work. Morgan said outstanding warrants
against his client were dismissed after he cooperated with the GBI.

Lavinia Smith, the sheriff’s former wife, didn’t want to talk about the work done at her home.

"I have no knowledge of that," she said.

Local work

Back in Camden County, the sheriff’s girlfriend had an identical reaction.

"I have no knowledge of that," Sandra Addy said.

of the former inmates interviewed by the Times-Union recalled working
at Addy’s St. Mary’s home. But Dyals, a neighbor, said he told GBI
agents he saw several inmates fixing an outdoor light and changing a
garden pump there this summer.

Former inmates did recall working at Smith’s hunting camp and at the Ponderosa, the sheriff’s getaway south of Woodbine.

Murphy remembered being transported to the hunting camp with other inmates.

"We were clearing a bunch of land," he said. "He [Smith] said this is … his little hunting ground."

also recalled chopping wood and feeding Smith’s hogs at the Ponderosa.
He said he was surprised when inmate workers occasionally were left
unsupervised and when Smith paid them. But he didn’t ask questions.

"I didn’t want to go back inside," Murphy said.

client said he did plumbing and tile work unsupervised at the
Ponderosa. He said deputies also drove him and another inmate to
Jacksonville to buy supplies for the project.

"I was out there every day for about three months," he said. "We’d call if we needed something."

He recalled Smith calling him at the jail and asking: "Have you fed my hogs yet? They can’t go to McDonald’s like you and me."

former inmate who records show was paid from forfeited assets denied
that he or other inmates worked on private property. Eugene Marr said
he worked around the jail while incarcerated on disorderly conduct
charges in 2005 and 2006 and only worked at the Ponderosa after his
release. He recalled seeing one trusty, methamphetamine manufacturer
William Murrell, accompanied by deputies at the property, but nobody

"There was no leaving going on," Marr said. "It was jail."

both Dyals and Morgan’s client said they felt threatened by the sheriff
after talking with GBI agents. Dyals said he was warned Smith wanted
him pulled over and arrested after learning of his cooperation.

Morgan’s client played for the
Times-Union a message Smith left on his cell phone in August after
learning of his cooperation with the GBI. Smith left his cell phone

"Just wanted to chat with you," the message says. "I think I already know what’s happening, but give me a call."

The man said he hadn’t spoken to Smith in years.

"I was freaked out," he said.

Losing patience

This isn’t the
first time Smith’s use of inmate labor has been investigated. A 1991
GBI probe began after an inmate took a joy ride in a deputy’s personal
vehicle he was washing, started drinking and injured two Marines in a

The sheriff was indicted in 1992, but the attorney general didn’t prosecute.

contended the investigation was instigated to disrupt his re-election
campaign. He later testified that inmates took bricks and a fireplace
insert to his residence at Harrietts Bluff and polished floors at a
former girlfriend’s house.

"I don’t see anything wrong with
that," Smith testified in 1997 in a lawsuit brought by a deputy who
said he was fired for cooperating with the GBI.

Attorney Jacobson said the
sheriff could be accused of involuntary servitude or forced labor or
violating federal tax and wage and hour laws. Though Jacobson has no
connection to Camden County, he said commissioners have a right to be

"The county was feeding these
people and housing these people, and here they were working for
somebody’s benefit," Jacobson said. "It’s improper gain and
compensation for the sheriff. He’s appropriating something that isn’t
really his. He’s exploiting his position for personal enrichment either
for himself or for the benefit of someone he cares about."

The sense of deja vu has
frustrated county commissioners, who cut Smith’s budget and sued him in
August over control of the confiscated drug money. Because the sheriff
is a constitutional officer, the only authority commissioners have over
him is budgetary.

"Every taxpayer is put at risk by
Bill Smith’s foolishness," Commissioner Steve Berry said. "While he
profits, the taxpayer takes the risk. It’s win-win for him and
lose-lose for us."

Smith said commissioners rejected his offer to allow them input into the trusty program.

But Berry and Commissioner Katherine Zell said the sheriff has violated the public’s trust.

"A lot has gone on that has been swept under the rug," Zell said. "It just goes on and on."

Times-Union writer Gordon Jackson contributed to this report., (904) 359-4107

The Florida Times-Union


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