Most Augustans thought they had heard the very last of Sentinel Offender Services — the private probation company that was hit by more than a dozen lawsuits filed in both Richmond and Columbia counties —when the Richmond County Probation Office was created by the city last year.
But it appears there are still some tentacles from the former Sentinel Offender Services office trying to wrap themselves around the new Richmond County Probation Office.
Some fear those former employees of Sentinel are looking to strangle the life out of the county’s new in-house probation office.
So what’s going on and who’s responsible?
A few people are pointing fingers at newly appointed Chief State Court Judge David Watkins, who is taking the place of retiring Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby.
Just last week, Watkins reportedly called for a meeting with Chief Probation Officer Marie Boulton and shocked everyone by asking her to resign.
Boulton is said to have been doing an excellent job as the chief probation officer, but Watkins still wanted her to step down.
But the judge didn’t stop there.
The Augusta Chronicle reported this weekend that Watkins also asked State Court Administrator Jan Hardy, who’s worked in the court for 38 years, to resign.
Both women refused Watkins’ request.
So, why is Sentinel even in this mix?
Well, the rumor in the Marble Palace is that Watkins wants to replace Boulton and Hardy with two former Sentinel Offender Services employees.
Former Sentinel employee Niya Barnes is rumored to replace Hardy, and Crystal Page, who previously ran the Sentinel office in Augusta, would replace Boulton, according to The Augusta Chronicle.
As a result of Watkins’ request for her to resign, Boulton has retained local attorney Jack Long as her legal counsel.
A very wise choice.
If anyone knows where the skeletons are buried regarding Sentinel and any connection Watkins might have with the private probation company, it’s Jack Long.
In fact, there have been rumors about Watkins’ relationship with some of the former Sentinel employees for years.
Back in 2014, Judge Slaby had to answer a few uncomfortable questions from the Augusta Commission regarding vague rumors involving a particular judge favoring Sentinel staff.
Slaby told commissioners that he had looked into the allegations and never found any truth to them.
“Periodically, people complain about things,” Slaby said. “We have always looked into those complaints and we have always found a resolution or quite frankly found they aren’t valid.”
But now, the issue has been raised again.
While some people might just say it is all simply gossip, the careers of county employees are also at stake.
Commissioners learned this week that Boulton has been placed on administrative leave while this matter is being reviewed.
As a result, the whole thing is a mess and no one is leading the in-house probation office.
Meanwhile, Judge Watkins remains completely silent on the issue.
But guess which man is refusing to remain silent this week?
None other than Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams.
He clearly voiced his frustrations over Watkins’ actions this past week.
In fact, he asked his colleagues to consider moving the in-house probation system under the Augusta Commission and out of the judge’s hands.
“This time last year we had a probation system that was in a disarray,” referring to the private probation system led by Sentinel Offender Services. “People were being mistreated.”
City leaders were hearing from hundreds of constituents that Sentinel had been ruthless in its attempts to collect excessive past probation fees.
The lawsuits against Sentinel also alleged that the company was overcharging probationers and illegally collecting fees and, in some instances, using incarceration to coerce payment from probationers.
As a result of the controversy surrounding Sentinel, Richmond County finally decided to create an in-house probation office last year.
And yet, it appears Judge Watkins is not satisfied with the department.
“I thought we had something working well, but evidently that is not happening,” Williams said. “All of the conversations that I’ve heard is about how bad it is now. Six months ago, it was the best thing since sliced bread, but now it has turned to nothing.”
Williams said he found that extremely hard to believe.
But without any additional information or explanation from Judge Watkins, the Augusta commissioners did not know what to do.
“It would be nice if Judge Watkins would actually reach out (to us),” Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said this week. “I have not heard anything bad about the lady that we hired to run our probation office. There was nothing from Judge Slaby that indicated anything was wrong.”
But now, Boulton and the probation office are left in limbo and the commission is left with nothing but questions, Guilfolye said.
“I don’t have a clue,” Guilfoyle told his colleagues about the status of the probation office.
However, he definitely didn’t believe the probation office should be under the commission.
“It is not designed to be run by a commission,” Guilfoyle said. “We are not in the law. We are not in the court system and, to be truthful, it is over every one of our heads trying to run a probation office.”
In the end, commissioners agreed the most prudent course of action would be to ask Watkins to appear before them during next week’s public safety committee meeting.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis told commissioners that he would be happy to ask Watkins to address the committee’s questions next week, but the mayor was also clearly frustrated with the chaos surrounding the in-house probation office.
“We try to be friends with the judiciary and we will continue to do that, but we have to have partners in the process,” Davis said. “Right now, that is not necessarily what is happening.”