Snellville mayor takes deal, avoids jail in criminal case

Snellville Mayor Tom Witts speaks to reporters Monday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center after entering a plea deal in his criminal case. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

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Snellville Mayor Tom Witts speaks to reporters Monday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center after entering a plea deal in his criminal case. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Snellville’s embattled mayor has entered a plea deal that will close the book on the criminal case against him, a years-long saga involving allegations of tax evasion and the use of campaign funds on things like cruises, plane tickets and pornography.

And he won’t be going to prison.

The plea deal accepted Monday by Snellville's Tom Witts, who suspended himself as mayor of the Gwinnett County city following his 2017 indictment but has not yet resigned, will allow him to receive punishment for just a fraction of the original charges filed in the wide-ranging criminal case against him.

All told, Witts entered an Alford plea — which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while admitting the evidence against them would likely to lead to a conviction — to 11 of the 66 counts in his indictment.

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Some of the more than 60 charges against Snellville Mayor Tom Witts included spending campaign money on porn sites and cruises.

The felony charges he pleaded to included one count of false statements, one count of false swearing, four counts of theft by conversion and five counts of tax evasion. As part of the deal, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter agreed to drop the other 55 counts against Witts.

ExplorePREVIOUS COVERAGE: Mayor’s indictment puts Snellville shenanigans back in the spotlight

Witts, who was recently diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer, will serve six months on house arrest and 10 years on probation. He was ordered to pay $40,000 in delinquent taxes.

The mayor also will resign his post as a condition of his probation, ending a impasse that had left the city in political limbo for more than a year. Since Witts suspended himself in September 2017 to avoid a state panel weighing in on his status, Snellville’s Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Bender had been fulfilling his duties for more than a year.

Witts nevertheless struck a defiant tone after Monday afternoon’s plea hearing.

“This thing has been over my life and my head for years,” Witts, 70, said. “Honestly, if I had the physical condition and the financial wherewithal, I would’ve fought it to the end.”

For his part, Porter said he was happy with the arrangement, given "the totality of what has happened over the course of time." He said Witts' health and age were both factors in his agreeing to a deal that allowed him to avoid prison time.

“I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish as far as he’s concerned,” Porter said. “But there are going to be people who wanted him thrown under the jail.”

Witts first fell under Porter’s suspicion in 2013, after a citizen watchdog filed an ethics complaint alleging then-city councilman Witts had lied on his 2009 candidacy affidavit about having paid his taxes. The issue resurfaced publicly in 2015 when Witts decided to run for mayor.

The lengthy investigation ratcheted up further in March 2016, when investigators from Porter's office, the state Department of Revenue and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided Witts' home and Tucker-based construction and home renovation business, Georgia Property Restoration.

A month later, Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his investigation suggested Witts owed tens of thousands of dollars in state taxes and had, for at least two years, withheld state taxes from his employees’ paychecks without then sending the funds to the state.

Witts was indicted Sept. 7, 2017. The document's original 66 counts included allegations that he "consistently underreported income and overreported deductions" on tax returns; that he used more than half of his 2015 mayoral campaign funds on expenses like cruises, plane tickets and pornography; and that Witts' company completed multiple jobs for the city of Snellville, a violation of state law.

On Monday, Witts said he planned to file his resignation Jan. 1, the same date that his house arrest begins. Porter, though, said afterward that he expects it to be filed immediately.

The court proceedings Monday marked another chapter in the tumultuous political life of the south Gwinnett city of nearly 20,000 residents. Witts had campaigned on unifying the city after several contentious years under the leadership of former Mayor Kelly Kautz. Witts’ indictment, however, less than two years into his term sent the city into more turmoil. Still, Witts on Monday said he was “very proud” of his accomplishments.

“I think I left Snellville in a better place than I found it,” he said.

The deal Porter struck with Witts is reminiscent of a similar one the longtime prosecutor cut with disgraced former Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly in 2014. Kenerly, who was accused of accepting $1 million worth of bribes, was given 10 years of probation and no prison time, in part because his wife was battling breast cancer.

Porter said at the time that he didn’t know if he had “allowed my compassion to overcome my basic sense that public officials should be held to a higher standard.”

Witts wrote on his personal Facebook page in October that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Witts wrote that his wife had also recently been diagnosed with a different form of cancer.

Porter said he didn’t want to put the burden of Witts’ care on the state.

“If I couldn’t put him in prison, then I wanted some kind of confinement alternative,” he said.

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