A clash between Fulton County’s top prosecutor and its sheriff has grown ugly, with District Attorney Paul Howard accusing veteran lawman Ted Jackson of putting the public’s safety at risk to settle a score.
The bad blood began after a courtroom dispute in June involving Atlanta attorney Claud “Tex” McIver, who is awaiting trial on charges he killed his wife. Since then, Jackson has done away with reserved parking spots for the district attorney at the Fulton County jail and even briefly limited access of prosecutors to inmates, Howard said.
But most importantly, Jackson has blocked area law enforcement agencies from easily monitoring inmate calls from the jail.
“It raises some critical public safety issues,” Howard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. He said the surveillance allowed authorities to stop escapes, prevent killings ordered by defendants or ward off witness intimidation.
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields called the ability of detectives to access the jail phone system, Securus Technology Portfolio, “an important tool for our investigators.
“We’re deeply concerned about the restrictions placed on our access to it,” Shields said in an e-mail.
Jackson said in an email sent by his spokeswoman that he decided to cancel the codes used by various law enforcement agencies to access the system while his office is “reevaluating administrative and operational protocols.
“Further, we have requested a legal assessment of the Securus operations and use by our law enforcement partners,” Jackson’s email said.
He said law enforcement could still have access to the jail recordings by filling out a new form.
But that system, even if temporary, is cumbersome and the delays that result could be deadly or costly to a trial, Howard said.
The sheriff’s office said its decision had nothing to do with hard feeling following a court hearing June 30 about where to house McIver. Fulton prosecutors had suggested Jackson was giving McIver “preferential treatment” by housing him at the Alpharetta annex which is quieter and less restrictive. Inmate conversations with visitors at the annex are not routinely recorded as they are at the main jail. And officers at the annex were allowing McIver to use phones that bypassed the recording system.
The sheriff’s office said the 74-year-old had been housed in the medical section at the main jail to keep him safe, not because he was in poor health. They decided to transfer him to the lower-security jail in Alpharetta because they needed McIver’s bed in the infirmary for sick inmates.
McIver is charged with malice murder and felony murder for shooting his wife, Diane, as they drove near Piedmont Park on Sept, 25. McIver has maintained the shooting was an accident. He also is charged with possession of a weapon and three counts of attempting to influence witnesses. He has been in the Fulton County Jail since April when his bond was revoked after investigators found a pistol during a search of his Buckhead condo.
The case has drawn intense media attention and arguments during the hearing in June became personal.
Ultimately, Judge Robert McBurney ruled McIver’s transfer was “purely administrative” and was Jackson’s prerogative.
“We didn’t care where the sheriff housed him,” Howard said. “We just wanted the ability to monitor him. It was important because he was indicted for intimidation of witnesses.”
But in mid-August, Fulton prosecutors discovered their access codes — or PINs — for Securus no longer worked. Howard received no notice.
“It came as a surprise to my office,” Howard said.
In an Aug. 16 letter to Jackson, Howard wrote: “While the calls have become important from an evidentiary standpoint, the greater need is to ensure that these dangerous activities are quickly identified and stopped. In fact, I had instructed a member of my staff on August 14th to monitor the calls of three gang defendants (who were) charged with murder (to listen) for threats to another incarcerated inmate after she testified against them.”
The Securus system records all inmate calls,. It also includes a voice recognition feature that sends an alert if an inmate uses another’s account. Securus can set up a “geo fence” that alerts if a call is placed to a certain geographic area, where witnesses and victims live.
A few days after Jackson terminated access, Howard asked the sheriff about the change when they crossed paths in the parking lot at the courthouse.
“He (Jackson) started talking about McIver. I’m not sure what he was talking about,” Howard said. “The next day we filed the motion before Judge (Gail) Tusan. She directed him to reconnect us.”
Instead, Jackson on Aug. 25 notified all law enforcement agencies in Fulton County they no longer had direct access to the system.
“To secure information from the Securus system, your agency will need a subpoena,” Jackson wrote. “We at the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office will continue to allow the usage of Securus System as long as your subpoena support(s) the application.”
On Tuesday, Howard wrote Jackson again, asking for the sheriff to meet with him and Shields. Jackson has not responded.
“I sincerely hope we can come to an amicable resolution of this issue that meets Sheriff Jackson’s needs, but provides us the ready access that’s been so valuable to our criminal investigations,” Shields said.
Howard said Jackson also took away three reserved parking spaces that had been set aside for prosecutors. Two of them are now marked “employee of the month” and the sign was simply taken off the post where the third had been. Yet, the reserved spaces for other court officials — the public defenders, conflict defenders, solicitor, clerk of court — remain.
Tracy Flanagan, the spokeswoman for Jackson, dismissed Howard’s complaint about the parking. “There are still a lot of parking spaces available. There is secure parking at the back of the jail. Judges park in the back. They (the DA’s parking spaces) weren’t being utilized all the time so it’s a spacing issue,” she said.
Howard said for one day Jackson refused to let prosecutors into the jail, where first appearance hearings are held. A judge interceded. Flanagan said she knew nothing of issue.