Now-former Snellville Mayor Tom Witts speaks to members of the media after entering a plea in his criminal case at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Dec. 17, 2018. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Georgia law allowed ex-Snellville mayor to get paid while suspended

For each of the 15 months that he was suspended from office before resigning, Snellville Mayor Tom Witts collected his $500 paycheck from the city.

In the grand scheme of things, the total of $7,500 collected by Witts — who left office last month after accepting a plea deal in a wide-ranging criminal case against him — is a relatively small sum for a city with a budget north of $13 million. But the payments raise questions about the state law that allows elected officials like Witts to continue collecting publicly funded salaries while under criminal indictment.

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City leaders and residents must now decide what's next.

Sara Henderson, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, called the law an example of the powerful protecting the powerful. It does not require officials suspected of crimes to reimburse taxpayers if they are ultimately convicted.

“This is just another outcome of the good old boy network that we’ve been using for decades,” she said, adding: “If you’re not playing by the rules, you should not reap the benefits.”

Witts suspended himself following his Sept. 2017 indictment on 66 criminal charges, with accusations ranging from tax evasion to the misuse of campaign funds. Gov. Nathan Deal made Witts’ suspension official a few weeks later.

The mayor was absent from city meetings, but legally still held office until Dec. 17, 2018, the day he accepted a plea deal and tendered his resignation.

Following a Georgia Open Records Act request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Snellville City Clerk Melisa Arnold said Witts had received his monthly salary of $500. Elected officials are not eligible for city insurance, she said.

Snellville City Manager Butch Sanders said that “Mr. Witts’ situation was handled per the letter of the law.”

Indeed, the same law that allows Georgia’s governor to suspend indicted elected officials like Witts includes the following language: “While a public official is suspended under this Code section and until initial conviction by the trial court, the public official shall continue to receive the compensation from his office.”

Members of Georgia’s House of Representatives and Senate ethics committees that were contacted Wednesday did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding the law and criticisms of situations like Witts’.

Henderson, the Common Cause Georgia director, said the case is another example of the need for the state legislature to take up “real, tangible ethics reform.”

“This is directly at the feet of our legislature,” she said. “And their feet need to be held to the fire.”

Since Witts’ resignation took place less than a year before his term was to expire, the mayor’s replacement will be appointed by the City Council, Sanders said.

The appointment is expected to be made at the council’s Jan. 14 meeting.

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