Fresh start for first offender leads to second crime

Angela Williamson seemed like a perfect candidate for the second chance offered by Georgia’s First Offender Act.

The Powder Springs resident had never been convicted of a crime before she pleaded guilty to embezzling $135,000 from her employer, a medical practice. Her crime involved no violence, and she promised to make restitution to her victim.

A judge placed Williamson on probation, and when she completed the sentence, her conviction was “discharged.” She no longer had a criminal history. And with a clean record, she got another job – where she embezzled another $1.3 million.

Advocates for criminal justice reform say the First Offender Act, adopted in 1968, lets people like Williamson make a fresh start after a one-time violation, free of the stigma a criminal conviction carries. But background checks performed by companies that scour court records and criminal justice databases often dig up discharged convictions, disqualifying applicants from many jobs. So state lawmakers will vote soon on a proposal that would not only exonerate first offenders, it would seal all government records of their arrests and convictions from public inspection.

But the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and some employers say the proposal would preclude the legitimate review of court files, arrest reports and jail logs. (Go here for a look at the proposed legislation.)

To the bill’s opponents, Williamson’s case can be seen as a cautionary tale about the leniency allowed by the First Offender Act.

Williamson pleaded guilty to forgery and theft charges in 2001 as a first offender. But when she applied for a bookkeeping job at InterContinental Marble Corp. in Marietta, nothing about the conviction appeared in a background check, said Karen Geiger, the company’s chief executive.

“If we had found that information, she would not have been hired,” Geiger said.

Geiger discovered Williamson’s theft in May 2011. “I’m still in shock,” she testified at Williamson’s trial in 2013.

Geiger said she had liquidated her retirement account and her children’s college accounts to get her company through rough spots. But “no matter how little cash we had to pay our bills,” she testified, “Angela still stole every week.”

Williamson allegedly wrote unauthorized checks to herself and to her creditors, then manipulated the county’s books to conceal the recipients.

Prosecutors said she used the stolen money to buy three houses, two boats and four cars – and to hire a personal chef.

A jury convicted Williamson and her husband, Scott Brian Williamson, of racketeering, partly because they allegedly hid assets after Geiger’s company sued Williamson to recoup the losses. A judge sentenced Brian Williamson to two years in prison and Angela Williamson to 15 years. She is scheduled for release in 2027.

Geiger doesn’t think further restrictions on records involving first offenders is a good idea.

“It is just ridiculous, the lack of accountability in our criminal system,” she said.

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