A Clayton County Special Purpose Grand Jury overstepped its authority when it investigated a former Morrow city official on corruption charges, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled this week.
In its ruling, the appellate court sided with a lower court’s decision that the special grand jury’s power did not extend to investigating former Morrow city manager John Lampl II or his involvement with the Olde Towne Morrow, a failed retail village near Southlake Mall that cost millions. The appellate court also said the Clayton panel didn’t have the authority to subpoena Lampl. Therefore, the lower court was right in dismissing a perjury count against him.
The Clayton Special Purpose Grand Jury, which served nearly two and a half years before ending in September, was empaneled to investigate allegations of corruption and other crimes involving current or past elected county officials and those employed with the county.
“We agree with the trial court that the special purpose grand jury did not have the authority to investigate Lampl or the Olde Towne Morrow project,” according to the three-member appellate panel’s opinion obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The ruling has potential implications beyond Lampl. It could affect other Clayton cases and possibly reach into DeKalb County where CEO Burrell Ellis is facing attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy charges stemming from a probe by a special purpose grand jury there.
The panel, which included Judges William Ray II, Anne Barnes and M. Yvette Miller, agreed with a Clayton Superior Court judge’s ruling that Lampl was never an elected county official or employee. Ray wrote the opinion.
Lampl’s attorney welcomed the appellate court’s decision. Clayton District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said Thursday she will ask the appellate court to reconsider its decision. If that fails, she said she would petition the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The (appeals) court held that anything from the special purpose grand jury was unlawfully obtained,” said Brian Steel, Lampl’s attorney. “It’s always good to have more counts that were wrongly put upon him dismissed.
The special grand jury did not have the power to render indictments. But its investigation led to a grand jury indicting Lampl in June 2011 on a 16 counts, namely that he falsified documents and circumvented state building codes by awarding contracts without properly soliciting bids. Subsequent arguments before a trial judge have pruned those counts to eight. Lampl now faces seven counts after Monday’s ruling.
“We look forward to a trial in the near future,” Steel said. “I just want Mr. Lampl to be able to lead a productive, peaceful life because he was wrongly targeted and wrongly accused.”
Monday’s ruling could have implications for other cases investigated by the special panel during its two-year tenure. Former Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy, for instance, resigned in October 2011 to avoid an investigation into alleged voter fraud by the special purpose grand jury. Murphy promised never to seek public office again as part of deal with the DA’s office.
The appellate court’s decision comes on the heels of another disappointment for Graham Lawson. In August, a jury acquitted Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill of more than two dozen felony charges that rose out of the special grand jury’s investigation. Hill was accused of unauthorized use of county credit cards, misuse of campaign money and using county employees to work on his re-election bid during county work hours.
In neighboring DeKalb County, attorneys for indicted CEO Burrell Ellis have repeatedly argued that a special grand jury there also exceeded its scope. DeKalb’s special grand jury convened in January 2012 to investigate allegations of kickbacks and other corruption in Watershed Department contracts. The special grand jury’s report, released in August, shows its work was the blueprint for the 14 felony charges of attempted extortion, theft and conspiracy that Ellis now faces. The case alleges that Ellis shook down county vendors for campaign contributions and punished those who did not give. Ellis has denied wrongdoing.
Craig Gillen, the lead lawyer on Ellis’ defense team, declined to comment Thursday. But in motions and court hearings, Gillen has repeatedly urged Ellis’ indictment be dismissed because the special grand jury went too far afield from its task. The defense team is expected to file a motion to that effect by Monday.
Criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow, who is not connected to the Ellis case, has lauded that argument. But he notes this week’s ruling is but a partial victory for Ellis’ team.
The ruling said the Clayton grand jury exceeded its scope in pursuing Lampl but that only his testimony before the panel was not admissible in court. The court allowed separate criminal charges to stand. Translated to Ellis’ case, that means only what Ellis said to the DeKalb special grand jury would be unusable, Sadow said.
Before it was disbanded, the Clayton special purpose grand jury released a scathing report on the county’s government. It didn’t name individuals just agencies. It accused some elected officials and the people they hire to run county agencies of abuse of power and using their positions to help themselves, their relatives and their friends. The panel called for further investigations.