Snellville mayor proclaims innocence while suspending self from office

Indicted Snellville Mayor Tom Witts voluntarily suspended himself from office Monday evening. The embattled leader also vowed to fight the massive criminal case against him and proclaimed his innocence.

Witts, 68, was not present during Monday night’s Snellville City Council meeting, the first gathering of the panel since he was indicted on dozens of felony charges. Those charges range from tax evasion to misuse of campaign funds. But City attorney Tony Powell read a statement in which Witts announced his self-suspension.

In the statement, Witts said he would soon “have the opportunity to assert my plea that I am not guilty of the charges filed against me” and that he didn’t want his legal battle to interfere with the city’s business.

“I am sorry I am unable to be with you tonight, but I will look forward to being with you again as soon as I can deal with the charges that have been asserted against me,” the statement said.

Witts was indicted Sept. 7, more than four years after District Attorney Danny Porter launched an investigation. The indictment's 66 counts include allegations of tax evasion, lying about candidacy documents about owing taxes, misusing campaign funds, and his company improperly doing business with the city.

Sixty-five of the charges are felonies. The only misdemeanor involves Witts allegedly using 2015 campaign money to pay for a subscription to a pornography website.

Witts turned himself in to the Gwinnett County jail on Sept. 14 and was released on a $20,000 signature bond.

Witts was already facing a possible suspension from Gov. Nathan Deal, who went public last week with plans to assemble a three-member panel to review the criminal case against the mayor. Such panels investigate cases against elected officials and make recommendations to the governor about whether suspensions from office are warranted.

The same section of Georgia law that enables Deal to appoint those panels allows Witts to voluntarily suspend himself from office instead, Powell said.

Witts was a Snellville city councilman from 2009 until 2015, when he resigned to make his run for mayor. He and his attorney, Patrick McDonough, have said little about the investigation and indictment.

The day Witts turned himself in, the city of Snellville issued a statement that both praised the mayor's work and said it had cooperated with Porter's investigation.

Snellville Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Bender, who will assume Witts’ duties in his absence, struck a similar chord Monday night when reading a statement attributed to the entire City Council. She praised Witts’ “hard work and dedication” and said she hoped the mayor would “be able to resolve his issues quickly.”

“I know this council is up to the tasks ahead of us,” Bender said. “We just want to assure the city of Snellvlle that this City Council pledges to continue to serve you to the best of our abilities.”