DeKalb’s case still going after seven years

The case seemed fairly straightforward back in 2008.

Prosecutors set out to prove that Pat Reid, the chief operating officer of DeKalb County Schools, steered tens of millions of dollars in school construction projects to an architectural firm owned by her husband, Tony Pope. Superintendent Crawford Lewis was aware of those illegal dealings, prosecutors believed, but did nothing to stop them.

Investigators went to work, gathering financial papers, travel records, contracts and other documents. Two years later, a grand jury brought formally charged Reid, Pope and Lewis.

No one anticipated that, five years after those indictments, the case would still be lumbering through the court system, or that the presiding judge, Cynthia Becker, would be indicted, as well. Thursday, Becker was charged with making false statements and writings, and obstructing justice in connection with the case.

“There is a need in our judicial system… for finality,” said Robin Clark, past president of the Georgia Bar Association.

Clark thinks most DeKalb residents are unaware that aspects of the case are still not resolved. If they were, she said, “They would say, ‘I thought that was long gone,’ and then they hear we are still spending money it. Their reaction would be ‘Are you kidding me?’”

The stage was set for the continuing drama in 2005, when Reid was hired to fix the school district’s trouble construction program. At the time, her husband already had a contract to renovate Columbia High School. But, as a condition of Reid’s hiring, Pope was to finish the first phase of the renovation and not pursue additional contracts with the school system.

Reid got around that by continuing to add to Pope’s contract for Columbia, then helping to secure school system work for a contractor who planned to use Pope was his architect.

Prosecutors charged Reid, Pope and Lewis with racketeering and theft.

But it took more than three years for the case to go to trial.

There was lengthy wrangling over Lewis’ legal representation. Prosecutors changed. And, after reaching a plea bargain with the state, Lewis went from co-defendant to witness. Ten days before the trial started, Lewis, who was facing up to 65 years in prison, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction for interfering with the district attorney’s investigation. One of the conditions of his plea deal was that Lewis would testify for the prosecution.

At the end of the 3 1/2-week-long trial, Reid and Pope, who by then were divorced, were found guilty of racketeering and manipulating construction contracts so that Pope got at least $1.4 million more than he should have. Judge Becker sentenced Reid to 15 years in prison, and Pope to eight years.

The judge then shocked prosecutors by rejecting their recommendation of probation for Lewis, a plea agreement she had signed off on earlier. Instead, Becker sentenced the former superintendent to 12 months in jail.

Becker explained she had the final say, despite the agreement, and that she based her decision on Lewis’ testimony, along with the testimony of other witnesses. She thought that he was lying. “This was on your watch,” she told Lewis, “and for you to have hindered their completion of their investigation to the detriment of DeKalb County School system is abhorrent.”

Lewis tried to withdraw his guilty plea, and asked for bond. But the judge sent him to jail immediately and said he needed to make the request in writing. Two days, she left town for a long-planned trip to attend the Army-Navy football game. The Georgia Court of Appeals stepped in five days later, saying state law required bail in his case.

Last October, the Court of Appeals once again intervened, ruling Becker had to honor the plea bargain deal reached with Lewis unless she could specifically identify how Lewis didn’t do what he promised. The appeals court also said that, if Becker believed Lewis’ testimony was so untruthful that the jury might not have convicted Pope and Reid had he been honest, she needed to list the lies.

Becker responded by ordering the release and retrial of Reid and Pope, adding they had been convicted on testimony that wasn’t truthful. But the Court of Appeals overturned Becker’s decision.

This summer, because of certain appeal issues that could overturn Reid and Pope’s convictions, the two were allowed to plead guilty to theft and given reduced sentences of five years each.

Lewis, meanwhile, is still in limbo. The Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments next month on whether Becker was allowed to renege on the deal. They also will hear arguments on the dilemma created when a defendant testifies and, in effect, gives up the constitutional protection from self-incrimination, but then wants to withdraw a plea because of sentencing.

Becker is no longer on the bench. She resigned in March, saying she was getting married and moving to another county.

But that didn’t end the case for her.

She is accused of not answering truthfully when questioned by the Judicial Qualifications Commission about the day she sent Lewis to jail instead of setting a bond.

Thursday, a grand jury indicted her on four counts of giving false statements, two counts of false writing and one count of misdemeanor obstruction.

“This case seems to have many tentacles and, to some, (it) may appear snake bit,” former DeKalb County District Attorney Jeff Brickman said.

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