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Thursday, March 6, 2008

FBI Taps Judge's Phones (MORE, CLICK HERE)

FBI Taps Judge's Phones
The Daily Report by Janet L. Conley - March 3, 2008

ATLANTA - Alapaha Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brooks E. Blitch III has been the target of FBI wiretaps and electronic surveillance, according to information revealed at a hearing in Lowndes County Superior Court last week.

The hearing in Valdosta involved a motion to compel testimony from the circuit's district attorney, and is just one more event in the increasingly complex series of inquiries that have rocked the tightly woven legal community in this five-county South Georgia circuit near Valdosta, where most of the legal business is handled by fewer than 40 attorneys and two Superior Court judges.

Blitch, who remains on the bench, has been at the center of inquiries that have resulted in former Clinch County Clerk of Court Danny Leccese pleading guilty to mail fraud, former Clinch County Associate Magistrate Judge Linda Peterson's suspension from the bench and indictment for perjury and an ongoing Judicial Qualifications Commission proceeding against Alapaha Judicial Circuit Juvenile Judge and Clinch County Chief State Court Judge Berrien L. Sutton.

In addition to the FBI investigation, Blitch also is the subject of a separate JQC proceeding initiated in November. The JQC has accused him of numerous instances of misconduct, including illegally imposing court fees, using his influence in cases involving his son and friends and improperly reducing the sentences of state prisoners.

Last week's hearing, held Feb. 27, was the latest salvo in the JQC's action against Blitch, and provided a rare point of intersection between its inquiries and those of the FBI in the circuit, which includes Atkinson, Berrien, Clinch, Cook and Lanier counties.

At issue in the hearing was an attempt by the JQC and Blitch's attorneys to depose Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney Catherine Harris Helms about her conversations with the FBI regarding Blitch.

At one point in the deposition, held Feb. 19, one of Blitch's attorneys, Robert S. Willis of Willis, Ferebee & Hutton in Jacksonville, Fla., asked Helms about her discussions with the FBI in the context of a particular case. Willis, in a multipart question, asked if the FBI had sought information about the contents of files and about people in Helms' office who might have worked on those files. Then, before she had answered any portion of the question, he said, according to the deposition transcript, "[W]hat was the scope of their request to you?"

"I think you're getting to where we didn't want ... to respond to questions," Helms said, according to the transcript.

Her attorney, Richard A. Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, then said his client would respond to questions about specific cases, "But as far as her conversations with the FBI, we're crossing into ... the alleged criminal investigation."

Malone acknowledged in the deposition that his client was not claiming that privilege prevented her from answering the question. Rather, he said, a response to Willis' broad question about the scope of her discussions with the FBI would only yield information that "is not relevant or material" to the JQC's allegations.

"Well, let me tell you how it's relevant," John F. Salter Jr. of the Barnes Law Group, another of Blitch's attorneys, shot back, according to the transcript. "There is no privilege whatsoever. And this proceeding is governed by a broad scope of discovery. It is not defined strictly by how y'all want to define relevance according to the four corners of this. We've asked y'all about what her knowledge is ... in regards to a file that has not only been queried and charged in this proceeding by the JQC against my client but ... there has apparently been interest expressed by the FBI."

At an earlier point in the deposition, according to the transcript, Helms testified that she had been contacted numerous times by the FBI. "It's probably more than a dozen," she said. "It's probably less than 100."

Salter then engaged in a verbal skirmish with Malone over whether Helms should answer the question about her conversations with the FBI. He argued that if a witness has been "communicating actively between 12 and 100 times about perhaps my client, then that is interesting in terms of a bias point of view. And we're entitled to uncover that, and it's absolutely relevant to this case."

With that, he called off the deposition, saying he wanted to take the matter before a judge.

That's exactly what happened last week. In addition to arguments by attorneys for Blitch, the JQC and Helms, there was a cameo appearance by Leah E. McEwen, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. That's according to Malone and T. Joshua R. Archer of Balch & Bingham, one of the JQC's attorneys. Malone and Archer said that McEwen revealed something that had not previously been public record, and about which Helms had not testified: that the FBI had electronically surveilled Blitch, and that at the FBI's request, she had listened to some of those tapes and had been asked to identify some of the individuals speaking on the tapes.

Neither McEwen nor the public information officer for the Middle District of Georgia's U.S. attorney's office responded to requests for comment about the hearing.

Archer said McEwen told the court that "Ms. Helms had listened to perhaps 2 percent of the tape recordings, and that there was an actual listening device in the judge's chambers or in his offices."

According to Richard Hyde, a Balch & Bingham employee who also is the JQC's chief investigator, for about a month last year, the FBI had wiretaps on two telephones in Blitch's offices or chambers, and one electronic listening device for in-person conversations in the same area.

As is common in FBI investigations, Archer said, Middle District Chief Judge Hugh Lawson had sealed the wiretap transcripts.

Until McEwen revealed their existence, Malone said, even he as Helms' attorney could not mention them.

After hearing arguments and evidence in the case, Southern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Harry J. Altman II ruled from the bench, Malone and Archer said. They said they expected a written order to issue sometime this week.

The motion was heard in the Southern circuit not because the Alapaha circuit's other judge, Carson Dane Perkins, recused, but because of JQC rules. Archer said that JQC rules specify that when a witness refuses to comply with a subpoena, as Helms did, the JQC may put the matter before a judge in the circuit where the witness lives. If the witness lives in the same circuit as the person about whom she is testifying—as Helms does—then the hearing is to be held in an adjacent county.

In essence, they said, Altman ruled that Helms must testify from her personal knowledge of matters relating to Blitch, but may not testify about what she heard on the FBI tapes absent that personal knowledge.

One of Blitch's attorneys, former Gov. Roy E. Barnes of the Barnes Law Group, put it this way: "If she learned it from the FBI tapes, you can't ask her about it. If she had knowledge that was outside the FBI tapes, you could"—even if the information was also on the tapes.

Barnes said he wished the judge had not placed any restrictions on the questions that could be asked of Helms, but said he was pleased the judge's ruling from the bench went as far as it did.

Malone and Archer both said they were pleased with Altman's ruling, as did Cheryl Fisher Custer, executive director of the JQC. Custer acknowledged that she was subpoenaed by the FBI last fall, on Sept. 24. The FBI asked for "everything," she said. "They wanted the entire file regarding Brooks E. Blitch III and Berrien Sutton."

"We provided them some information, and some information we thought was not discoverable under the rules of the JQC," Custer said. She added that the FBI had not challenged her refusal to provide them with certain information.

After the written order in the Helms matter issues, Archer said, the district attorney will be deposed again. Her initial deposition, though truncated, offers insight into the inner workings of the small circuit.

Helms testified, according to the deposition transcript, that she first met Blitch in the 1980s, while she was in law school at the University of Georgia. Blitch was coaching students in preparation for a mock trial competition in which Helms was involved, she said, and introduced himself to her because he knew she was dating a fellow law student, Jack J. "Jeff" Helms, whom she later married. Blitch knew Jeff Helms because they were from the same area in South Georgia.

"Did you have any kind of a social relationship with [Blitch] thereafter?" Willis asked in the deposition.

"Well, Homerville's a small community," Cathy Helms responded. She went on, "We go to the same church. I know his children. I know his wife."

Jeff Helms told the Daily Report that he initially represented Blitch in the JQC matter, but withdrew in June. Helms said he could not recall whether he withdrew before or after his wife received a grand jury subpoena in the FBI investigation.

Helms said he has not appeared before Blitch since the JQC instituted its proceeding against the judge in November. However, as the circuit's district attorney, his wife has appeared before the judge.

In her deposition, Cathy Helms said that her office, which has four assistant district attorneys, "very regularly" appears before Blitch. She testified that she had a trial scheduled before him the morning of the day the deposition was held, but the trial was cancelled when the defendant entered a plea.

The FBI and JQC actions have affected the small, interconnected nature of the South Georgia legal community, Jeff Helms said. "We see each other nearly every day and have practiced together and been against each other in court and on the same sides and eat lunch together," he said. "It's been stressful for the whole circuit."


Anonymous said...

The FBI would run out of tape if they ever decided to wiretap the NYC Judges.There are too many fixes and favors getting called in the NYC Courts.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked that cameras and recording devices are not standard. They should be it would keep people honest.

Anonymous said...

The perfect scenerio would be to hire ex-court employees...they know all the happenings, skeletons and juice going on in their courthouse and how to go about obtaining the correct information from the accurate sites! This is a no brainer and would save the FBI and TAXPAYER tons of money and time, while taking immediate steps to curb the insanity being perpetuated by the NY STATE COURT SYSTEM! At the very least, they have a little bit of information about a lot of people and maybe a lot of information about just as many! Try it!

Anonymous said...

do it more, please

Anonymous said...

Wire tapping phones, scouring everyone's bank accounts...mine was one and for absolutely no reason......i now beleive it is time for using just cell phones (throw aways) and keeping our income in safety deposit boxes or at home! It wouldn't hurt for all of us to write things down, instead of speaking and then shredding the paper when we are done and throwing it out with the dog'S doo! When Bush is out, we can check out the residual of what the intelligence community is allowed to do! I already have 3 BIG BROTHERS!

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See Video of Senator John L. Sampson's 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption

The first hearing, held in Albany on June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:

               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
               The June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:
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