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Complaint filed prior to vote not to reappoint judge

COVINGTON -- City officials received a letter of complaint against former Municipal Court Judge David Strickland days before the City Council opted not to reappoint him, according to documents obtained by the Citizen through an Open Records request.

The complaint was sent by Jennifer Hartman, a former employee of East Georgia Correctional Services, the company the city contracts with for probation services, on Feb. 1. In it, Hartman alleges "unethical and unprofessional" behavior by Strickland, citing a personal relationship with another former employee as well as alleging retaliation against the company after that employee was fired.

Strickland's attorney, Paul Oeland, told the Citizen on Tuesday that Strickland began a romantic relationship with a former probation officer, Mary Trammell, in 2009 after separating from his wife.

In the fall of that year, Trammell was charged by the Covington Police Department with following too close after causing an automobile accident. When the case went to Municipal Court, Strickland signed a dismissal order on recommendation of a police officer due to the fact that damages were paid by the defendant, according to the city's Administrative Services Director Ronnie Cowan.

Cowan said he was informed of the situation and questioned Strickland, who said it was standard procedure for those types of cases, as the defendant had paid all damages. A review of similar cases showed they were handled in like fashion, Cowan said.

In her letter, Hartman claims a conflict of interest, stating: "Although it may be common for tickets to be dismissed, they should not be dismissed by the defendant's partner or any other personal companion," and calling the way the case was handled "an injustice to an everyday citizen who is cited and prosecuted in Covington Municipal Court, paying all fines and serving all sentencing."

In late 2009, Trammell was arrested and charged with 17 counts of theft by conversion and two counts of first degree forgery. The charges were related to funds she allegedly stole from the probation company totaling about $2,700. Trammell pleaded guilty to the charges and, as a first offender, was sentenced to 10 years probation on each of three felony counts, to be served concurrently, according to documents on file at the Newton County Judicial Center. She was fired from East Georgia Correctional Services and paid full restitution to the company, according to court documents.

One defendant who was the victim of Trammell's theft was reimbursed by the company but still owed a $15 fine and $47 in probation fees, according to Hartman. The fine was waived by Strickland with the defendant's written agreement not to pursue further action, according to Hartman.

"How is this fair to other offenders on probation who are required to pay all of their fine money?" she stated.

Hartman also alleged that following Trammell's firing, the judge stopped communicating with probation staff, did not provide requested information on policies and procedures and allowed several defendants' cases to expire by not signing needed documentation.

In September 2010, the city received a complaint from Fran Martin, director of East Georgia Correctional Services, regarding changes to court procedures. The complaint centers on a variety of court procedure and policy issues, one of which was a new requirement that her employees fill out a form detailing various costs paid by defendants.

Cowan said that complaint prompted the city to look into possible deficiencies in procedure and case management. He noted that though Court Services falls under his area of supervision in administrative services, the judge, who is appointed by the City Council, is autonomous and has authority to determine how court is conducted.

The city was further put on alert to issues with court services in late 2010 after review of a procedural audit conducted earlier that year by the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council revealed problems with management of probation operations, Cowan said.

A 2010 compliance review report and a follow-up report early this year indicated a need for "additional attention to detail and increased review of documentation" by East Georgia Correctional Services. The review cites cases left open beyond expiration dates; failure to follow standard procedure in referring cases back to court when defendants failed to complete mandated diversion programs; and lack of action by probation officers to address habitual non-compliance or growing arrears. The review found that reported status of cases did not always reflect case conditions and some cases were listed as active even though they had expired, or changed status without documentation as to why, making it "difficult for the court and clerk to determine expired cases from active and pending cases."

The advisory council recommended East Georgia Correctional staff and the court officers meet and outline specific procedures and clarify policies.

Cowan said the audit "put us on notice and then that drew attention to the contract" with the probation services provider. In addition, the city council agreed to review all long-term contracts at its 2011 strategic planning session, Cowan said.

After reviewing the probation services contract, city administration agreed to put out a request for proposals to include a requirement that respondents include a fee to cover the cost of community service supervision and transportation of community service workers, Cowan said. Currently the city is absorbing those costs, he said.

The contract with East Georgia Correctional Services expires in March. The city has on file a letter of notification that the contract would be rebid that was sent to Martin from Strickland in March 2011, a year in advance of the expiration.

In her letter, Hartman said East Georgia Correctional Services has not had equal opportunity to submit a bid.

In an email from Horton to Cowan and the city attorneys, Horton disagreed with that allegation.

"The request for proposals was advertised openly with the full knowledge of the mayor and city council and Ms. Martin did not submit a proposal. If anything, Ms. Martin excluded her company by choosing not to submit a proposal," the email states. Horton goes on to say that to exclude other proposals submitted and allow the current provider to continue would create "an opportunity for the responsive bidders to take some civil liability action against the city."

Hartman said as a result of the pending contract termination she has lost her job as a probation officer. She alleges the contract is being cancelled in retaliation for the firing of Trammell. The Municipal Court judge negotiates the contract for probation services, which is approved and ratified by the City Council.

The Covington City Council went into executive session Monday night for about 45 minutes, after which the council voted 5 to 1 to temporarily appoint attorney Ben Hendricks as Municipal Court judge until the position can be filled.

Council members would not comment on the reason behind their decision.

Strickland would not comment following Monday night's meeting and did not return follow-up calls seeking comment.

Strickland has been Municipal Court judge for 16 years. The position carries a salary of $28,000.

The council is expected to hear an update on the selection of a new probation services company at its Feb. 20 meeting.