It is a coincidence that the case playing out over the past few days - in which state Sen. Don Cheeks, R- Augusta, is portrayed as intervening on behalf of a child sex offender - occurred just before a debate over new state ethics rules.
Among those rules, pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, one would prohibit lawmakers from contacting state prison officials on behalf of an inmate. The change would help prevent abuses such as those by another state senator who last year was accused of taking payoffs for intervening on behalf of a prisoner.
The recent incident involving Cheeks and Bobby Clark Brassell Jr., however, reveals what some see as a loophole in the law - one that may result in hasty, ill-conceived additions to Perdues proposals.
Brassell, who pleaded guilty to sexual battery of a child, was given probation and required by an order from Superior Court Judge Carl Brown to register as a sex offender. Cheeks, contacted by Brassell, called District Attorney Danny Craig; a few days later, the DAs office amended the order, keeping Brassells name off the registry.
Cheeks says he didn't think the misdemeanor conviction required Brassell to register; Craig, who had doubts about Brassell's guilt and didnt feel Brassell was a danger to the community, agreed. But Georgias attorney general says while sexual battery is a misdemeanor, the offense requires registration when the victim is a child. In fact, of the 23 offenders listed in Columbia County's sex-offender registry, two were convicted of sexual battery. (The list may be viewed online at www.columbiacountyso.org/offenders.html.)
So its back to square one for Brassell, who will have to fulfill the terms of his original sentence.
This is a touchy case with divorce and domestic discord predating the accusations. And now the victims family also says theyll file an ethics complaint against Cheeks.
Cheeks contends he contacted the DA on Brassell's behalf because he believed an innocent man was being punished unfairly. Whatever the case, under current ethics rules the contact wasnt unethical. And even the governors proposed revisions wouldnt prohibit it.
That may change. It would be a simple matter to tweak Perdue's reforms to also prohibit lawmakers from getting involved in criminal matters.
But beware the consequences of a knee-jerk reaction: It is far more common for lawmakers to make calls on behalf of victims, who rightly see their elected officials, like Cheeks, as an advocate. Ethics rules that shut politicians out of the legal process may prevent lobbying on behalf of defendants - but such rules could keep them from speaking up for victims, too.
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