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Long arm of the law shortens sentence

Sometimes the news strikes close to home.

Sandra Putnam, a former top official at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, pleaded guilty Monday to racketeering and violating the oath of a public officer.

She hired my wife at the GBI.

Putnam faced up to 20 years in prison for fraudulent charges on her state purchasing card. She admitted to spending $60,000 on items including a leather sofa, furniture to go beside her pool, clothes and gifts for her then-boyfriend and now-husband (a former Sandy Springs Police captain).

Most folks would get prison time for stealing so much, but the law work in strange ways when applied to those paid to enforce them.

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Putnam's sentence? Ten years probation, which sounds like a long time until you realize it might not last the winter. Her probation's over once she's completed 200 hours of community service and repaid the $60,268.04 she charged on a state credit card from May 2013 to August 2016.

Putnam’s attorney says her family has already raised about $40,000 and the remainder would be paid quickly.

Despite GBI Director Vernon Keenan saying Putnam "is an absolute embarrassment to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to the law enforcement profession," he didn't fire her. She was allowed to resign.

She didn't lose her law enforcement certification. Theoretically, she could go to a town without newspapers and immediately become a police chief.

She didn't lose her pension. After 21 years at the agency her salary was over $100,000 a year, so taxpayers will be paying about $60,000 a year in early retirement. Taxpayers also get to foot the bill for her GBI replacement.

During sentencing, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said Putnam's years of "honorable service" offset the harm she'd done.

Really? Or did we just hear a judge tell us police officers get special treatment?

I think we know the answer. Police officers are rarely charged with crimes. Unlike normal citizens, they are allowed, in Georgia, to attend grand jury hearings and hear and respond to allegations brought against them before they are charged.

Let's compare Putnam's punishment to that of former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who was charged in a federal case for funneling about $60,000 in public funds to a bank account used by her and her husband. Boyer was sentenced to 14 months in prison. Her husband was sentenced to a year and one day.

Several years ago, a Georgia Tech employee, Michelle Harris, pleaded guilty to one county of racketeering for $170,000 is fraudulent charges on her state purchasing card. Her sentence? 10 years in prison.

Thurbert Baker, Georgia's attorney general at the time, said, "Ten years in prison is a clear message that violating the public trust will not be tolerated in Georgia. ... The [purchasing card] program ... became a slush fund for some employees who found a way to criminally circumvent the safeguards in place to prevent misuse.  This prosecution... signals that the days of public monies paying for corrupt employees spending sprees are over."

If 10 years in prison is a "clear message," a few months probation tells us law enforcement is above the law.

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