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Monday, March 17, 2008

Judge Named as Unindicted Co-Conspirator in Extortion Case

Judge Named as Unindicted Co-Conspirator in Extortion Case
The New York Law Journal by Janet L. Conley - March 17, 2008

ATLANTA - Brooks E. Blitch III, the chief judge of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal superseding indictment filed Tuesday against one of his former employees, one-time Clinch County Magistrate Judge Linda C. Peterson.

Blitch, according to the indictment, gave Peterson a $14,000 raise after she helped him and his son resolve a legal claim in a manner that the indictment alleges is extortion.

Though the indictment refers to Blitch only as “co-conspirator #1”, his attorney, John F. Salter Jr. of The Barnes Law Group, confirmed his identity, as did Annie Ruth Steedley, the chief magistrate judge of Clinch County, which is part of the Alapaha Circuit. Steedley is Peterson's former boss; Peterson was suspended from the bench after she was indicted last year. Salter and Steedley also confirmed that Blitch's son, Brooks E. Blitch IV, is the person

identified in the indictment as “co-conspirator #2.” Neither Blitch has been charged with a crime, although the elder Blitch is the target of an FBI investigation and is also the subject of misconduct proceedings initiated by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Peterson's lawyer, Valdosta attorney William “Bill” E. Moore Jr., was not in the office Friday and could not be reached for comment. The assistant U.S. attorneys who filed the indictment, James “Jim” N. Crane and Leah E. McEwen of the U.S. attorney's office for the Middle District of Georgia, could not be reached for comment.

The indictment, filed in Georgia's Middle District, indicates that the Blitches owned commercial logging equipment that they had stored on property rented by the younger Blitch, known in his Homerville community as “Little Brooks.” Little Brooks owed about $900 in back rent, according to the indictment, and when he failed to pay, the owner of the property asked a person identified only as “TS” to remove the logging equipment, which TS began to do.

On or about Dec. 19, the indictment says, Judge Blitch “personally confronted TS at the location of the real property, cursed and yelled at TS, and threatened legal action if TS did not pay” him and his son “the estimated value of the logging equipment.”

Around that same time, according to the indictment, Judge Blitch met with Steedley and asked her to issue a warrant for TS' arrest. Judge Blitch told Steedley that his son was the owner of the logging equipment and did not disclose, the indictment says, that he was a half-owner. Little Brooks then filled out an application for arrest. Steedley said she told the Blitches she did not want to be involved in the case because of what she perceived to be a conflict of interest.

“I felt like that since Judge Blitch was my superior court judge, that we did not need to hear the case, that we needed to call in a judge from another circuit,” Steedley said. “And Judge Peterson felt that she could handle it without no problem, and I told her I didn't want it done, I didn't want no part of it but if she felt secure at it, go at it.”

Peterson did proceed with the case, according to the indictment, holding a hearing on the arrest warrant application Dec. 22, 2006. Peterson, according to the indictment, told TS that she would issue an arrest warrant against him, and that he “could avoid arrest and incarceration if he immediately went and got money to pay” Little Brooks.

TS, according to the indictment, went to a local bank and withdrew money to pay Little Brooks. Salter said in a telephone interview that the equipment at issue was worth about $4,000. In an e-mail message, he said that the person identified as TS “admitted he wrongfully damaged property belonging to Brooks Blitch IV.”

The e-mail went on to say, “As it is appropriate to do, the matter was handled through the legal system. Rather than jail [TS] for wrongful destruction of the property, Magistrate Peterson allowed [him] to make restitution for the damage. … In this instance, it was Blitch who was the victim. …” The month after TS paid Little Brooks, on Jan. 2, 2007, according to the indictment, Judge Blitch “issued a judicial order resulting in a $14,000 per year raise” for Peterson.

Salter, in his e-mail, wrote, “Linda Peterson has testified under oath and denied any connection between the hearing and any decisions about her pay as a magistrate. The federal government's charges against Peterson are the exact opposite of reality: They treat an admitted wrongdoer like a victim and, worse, label as criminals the true victims and a magistrate who was just doing her job.”

Salter said his client denied any involvement in the alleged extortion. Peterson also was charged in the indictment with perjury and false statements made in matters unrelated to the alleged extortion. She was indicted on those counts last fall. No co-conspirators were identified in those charges.

Also on Tuesday, the sheriff of Clinch County, Winston C. Peterson, was the subject of a superseding indictment that accuses him of two counts of obstruction of justice; one count of perjury and one count of forced labor. All of the counts refer to co-conspirator #1, who is identified in several of the counts as a judge. Salter said Friday that he was not able to confirm whether “CC #1” in the Peterson superseding indictment refers to Judge Blitch.

Staff Reporter R. Robin McDonald contributed to this story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The judge$ are the one$ with the mo$t to gain.

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