Robin… Hood

Metro Spirit looks back at 25 years

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Robin… Hood

This year, the Metro Spirit is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As part of that celebration, the paper has decided to look back at some of its previous stories that shook up this town over the years.

One such story was an article that ran exactly 10 years ago questioning former state Rep. Robin Williams’ consulting contract with the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia.

The June 2004 story, written by former Metro Spirit staff writer Brian Neill, shed new light on the questionable deal the former Republican state representative had as a lobbyist.

Now 52, Williams was convicted in May 2005 of stealing more than $2 million from the Community Mental Health Center through a scheme involving health care fraud, money-laundering and bribery.

Williams, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution, was already out of office and had turned lobbyist during the time at which he stole federal funds intended for patients suffering from mental illness, substance abuse or developmental disabilities.

He is scheduled to be released on July 20 of this year. Enjoy a trip down memory lane. 

Former local politician Robin Williams always had a ready answer for everything.

Even when Williams’ answers didn’t seem quite up to snuff, his squeaky, rapid-fire utterances served as white noise that blanketed any questioner’s attempt at seeking clarity.

When Augusta’s Community Mental Health Center awarded the former Republican state representative a consulting contract in 2001, paying him $30,000 for four months’ work — the nature of which was anyone’s guess — local mental health activists and clients of the center were dumbfounded and disgusted.

But Williams’ explanation at the time for how he got the contract was in keeping with his trademark style — flip and unabashed.

“I brought a contract and I brought invoices,” Williams told the <it>Metro Spirit<it> immediately after the center’s board had sealed the deal. “(I said) ‘This is what it’ll take, this is what I’ll do, you tell me if this is what you’re interested in,’ and they came back and said, ‘Yes.’

“So, if that’s not free enterprise, I don’t know what is.”

In the minds of federal investigators, Williams squeezed plenty of “free enterprise” out of the mental health center during the past few years.

A 30-count federal fraud indictment issued May 26, 2004 suggested Williams and some of his cronies stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the mental health center through a scheme involving health care fraud, money-laundering and bribery.

Williams really stepped in it this time, but his jittery jargon is absent from this story. Instead, he’s referred questions to his attorney, Bruce Morris of Atlanta.

“The indictment was not a surprise. We’ve been aware of the investigation and have been cooperating with all requests for almost a year,” Morris said by phone in 2004. “We expect to be completely exonerated. These are legitimate contracts and some of the politics of the Community Mental Health Center have folks in one camp saying, ‘We don’t like these contracts, but there’s nothing improper or illegal about them — legitimate services rendered.’”

Morris said his client was bearing the news of the indictment well. “He’s doing just great. His spirits are high,” Morris said in 2004.

“Of course he’s concerned. He’s concerned that they’ve besmirched his good name and they’ve challenged him to a fight and he accepts the challenge. “I think part of the charges against him stem from people who don’t like him and would like to see him in trouble.”

There’s a bit of irony in Williams’ selection of attorney.

Readers no doubt remember when Williams was embroiled in a lobbyist-funded trip in the mid-1990s to South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island that included an entourage of strippers from Atlanta’s Cheetah club.

Well, Morris represented defendants in the much publicized 2001 case involving a now-defunct Atlanta strip club, the Gold Club, and its ties to racketeering, prostitution and the Gambino crime family.

Jack Long, a local attorney who served as Williams’ campaign manager, told the Metro Spirit in 2004 that he thought Williams would be cleared of wrongdoing.

“I don’t think much of the indictment, because I don’t think they did anything wrong,” Long said in 2004. “Everything they did, apparently, was open and approved by the board. “The problem with politics in Augusta is, if anybody gets elected they (media) write about them. Based on my knowledge, I’ve never been concerned for Robin.”

In addition to Williams, those named in the indictment included Matthew Chad Long, a lobbyist who’s the grandson of former House Speaker Tom Murphy; Rick Lamar Camp, a former Atlanta Braves pitcher turned consultant; Duncan Fordham, owner of Duncan Drugs, which was contracted to operate a pharmacy at the mental health center; and Charles Michael Brockman, a bearish former Marine who served as the center’s chief financial officer, and later, its executive director.

With the possible exception of the sports notable, Williams was the name most watched on the list of those indicted. After all, he’s exuded so much controversy over the years — controversy that’s never seemed to trip him up along the way to forming tight bonds with politicians on both sides of the partisan aisle, and securing lucrative contracts as a “consultant” during his short, post-political career.

 

jail

 

Williams even toted around a governor or two in a private jet. All the while, the stout dynamo’s feet had tiptoed over that ethical line so many times that some have wondered why an indictment took so long to come.

To recap:

There was the 1993 incident involving allegations that Williams burned a car he owned in order to collect the insurance money. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation dropped the case after it failed to produce a credible witness.

Then, there was the controversy that arose in 1999 involving the inflated sale of land surrounding the Ezekiel Harris House on Broad Street to the city and allegations that Williams received kickbacks from the property owner, Bill Howard, of Howard’s Appliances.

Howard, according to GBI reports, declined to take a polygraph or provide documentation for the roughly $50,000 withdrawn from his account around the time of the first parcel’s sale.

Again, case closed.

There were also lobbyist-funded trips and contributions Williams took in addition to the stripper fest in Daufuskie.

For instance, Williams took money from lobbyists for both a consortium of ophthalmologists and the American Medical Association of Georgia to travel to beach-side conventions in Florida with his family in tow.

He also collected nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions from those same groups while a legislator, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2000.

The Georgia State Ethics Commission ruled that same year that Williams was wrong for taking the trips, but didn’t fine him because the guidelines for accepting gifts and donations from lobbyists was loosely worded.

Another bullet dodged.

But Williams was unable to duck political defeat, which came in the form of former state Rep. Sue Burmeister’s successful bid for his seat in 2000.

Soon after, Williams began doing consulting work for the security and prisons industries.

Williams also had an unsuccessful run for Augusta mayor in 2002.

At that time, the Metro Spirit asked Williams about the myriad near brushes with the law he’d had over the years, to which he replied: “Some of it’s real, some of it’s perception and some of it’s just plain not true. I guess the answer to that question, long and short is, I’ve made some mistakes in the past.”

One person who’s been there to watch the whole Williams drama unfold is Bob Beckham.

A political wonk and Republican strategist from Columbia County, Beckham saw a rising star in Williams in the late 1980s when he backed the novice candidate’s successful bid for a Republican state House seat.

As Beckham recalled in 2004, Williams was an ambitious go-getter who lived and breathed politics.

“What impressed me at that time with Robin Williams was, he was very energetic and very interested in politics,” Beckham said in 2004 at his Evans home. “And he worked with Frank Albert, who was the state senator at that time from this area — Republican.”

 

Bob-Beckham

Bob Beckham

But Beckham said it didn’t take long for him to think he’d made a mistake in supporting Williams, noting that the once-rising star among the Young Republicans of Richmond and Columbia County had become quite close with Tom Murphy, a Democrat.

That earned Williams the moniker, RINO, for Republican in Name Only.

“Robin found out, I guess, early on in the Legislature that, by playing ball with the Speaker of the House, it placed him in the position to be able to get from the Speaker certain accommodations for his selling out to the Speaker,” Beckham said in 2004. “And I felt that that was a serious mistake, in that, if we had wanted a Democrat to be in the Legislature, we should have sent one, instead of one that played like a Republican and acted like a Democrat.”

It was around the mid-1990s that Beckham began to sour even more on Williams for cozying up to lobbyists.

Beckham said he also kept track of William’s campaign contributions over the years and showed that the representative rewarded donors with votes in the Legislature.

“I was happy with him (in the beginning). He was doing great, but he learned quick. He learned how to get the money,” Beckham said in 2004. “I also fell out with him over the sale of this land from one of his big contributors, Howard Appliances. The Ezekiel Harris conflict. That was a deal Robin pulled off. The biggest waste of (city) money I’ve ever seen. “I just asked him how he could justify doing it. ‘(Speaking gibberish) blah, blah.’ You know, he could always doubletalk you. Very fast. ‘Blah, yep a, blah blah … I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

Though his political career could arguably serve as a case study for an ethics class, Williams seemed to get a pass from some local media over the years, particularly The Augusta Chronicle during Phil Kent’s tenure as editorial page editor.

In editorials, Kent defended Williams on his Daufuskie Island trip. Letters to the editor in the paper also accused Kent of playing favorites with the legislator.

Some on-air callers to local talk show host Austin Rhodes also accused Kent of paying little attention to the Williams’ indictment, while continuing to heap scrutiny on former state Sen. Charles Walker, who at the time was also being investigated by federal officials.

Beckham, former owner of WGAC-AM 580, which carries the Austin Rhodes Show, suggested that such media favoritism was due to the fact that Rhodes and Kent were close friends of Williams, often visiting the representative’s Atlanta apartment, which he shared with state Sen. Joey Brush (R-Dist. 24) and state Rep. Ben Harbin (R-Dist. 113) early in their political careers.

“The thing is, it involved girls, money and parties,” Beckham said in 2004. “And they were entertaining local folks there in Atlanta, including Austin Rhodes and Phil Kent.”

When contacted in Atlanta in 2004, where he was an author and political consultant, Kent was hesitant to comment on Williams’ indictment, suggesting that his comments might be “distorted” by the Metro Spirit, and its publisher, David Vantrease.

“I’m just concerned that any of my statements might be distorted by David,” Kent said in 2004. “So, I just have to say that I’m going to let the case unfold and we’ll see what happens.”

In the past, the Metro Spirit had written stories citing concerns on the parts of city officials and residents that Kent’s editorial stance at the Chronicle was divisive.

In 1998, this paper also examined an incident in which sentences from one of politician and author Pat Buchanan’s books had been inserted into one of Kent’s columns.

Though the incident had all the appearances of outright plagiarism, Kent insisted at the time it was an editing mistake.

When pressed further during the recent exchange, Kent denied Beckham’s claim that he hung out with Williams at his apartment in Atlanta.

“That’s ridiculous … I didn’t live in Atlanta then, I lived in Augusta,” Kent said in 2004. “I was a journalist … and reported on everybody and commented on everybody. “I’m not going to speculate in rumors. I visited the Legislature as a journalist, so I’m not going to speculate on what people may or may not say, or what enemies say or what friends say, but I’m just going to follow the Williams case just like anybody else.”

In 2004, Rhodes would not respond to an e-mail from the Metro Spirit questioning whether he spent time with Williams at his Atlanta apartment and whether a friendship between them, if it existed, influenced Rhodes’ coverage of the representative over the years.

Responding to an earlier e-mail question regarding the indictment, itself, Rhodes said: “In recent years when Robin has run into controversy, I have been one of the first people he has contacted to give ‘his side of the story’. I have not heard from him since his indictment, and he has chosen not to return the one call I made to him since the story broke.”

Beckham said he had encouraged Harbin to move out of the Atlanta apartment and distance himself from Williams.

In 2004, Harbin acknowledged that he and Williams had grown apart over the years, but not because of any prodding on the part of Beckham or anyone else.

“He was a friend and I never have denied he was a friend,” Harbin said in 2004. “He’s somebody who, I hope, they’ll prove it’s (the indictment) not true. “I would never say I backed away. He and I just took different courses. I have businesses that I have to run and he had his businesses he was running and I just think, over time, just like anything, you start moving in different directions.”

 

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Ben Harbin

 

In addition to running an employee benefits company of his own, Harbin said in 2004 that he and his father also operate a land-surveying business.

Harbin said Williams was head of security for Montgomery Ward in the Regency Mall when the two first met roughly three decades ago.

They traveled to Young Republican meetings together and Harbin remembers the time that Williams beat out Alec Poitevint for the Americanism Award, the highest award the political group gave at the time. Poitevint became the chair of the Georgia Republican Party and a national GOP committee member.

Because of Williams’ frenetic pace and ability to form bi-partisan friendships, Harbin said he and his colleagues never questioned various news stories about him over the years.

“In politics, we hear rumors every day on everybody,” Harbin said in 2004. “I mean, he always lived large. We were talking about him yesterday, some of his friends in Atlanta. We were just talking about how he always lived large, and that’s just the way he was. He had won over Tom Murphy, he had won over (former state Senator and Department of Transportation Chairman) Tom Coleman, he had won over Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi. It wasn’t partisan, it was just Robin.

“Did we ever get suspicious? I don’t know if we ever were suspicious. He was just Robin. That’s kind of the way we all looked at it.”

While in Atlanta, Harbin said he spoke with lobbyists who had seen Barbour at an airport in Washington, D.C., waiting to be picked up in a private jet Williams either piloted or had chartered to take the governor back home in 2004.

“So in all appearances, he (Williams) had become very successful,” Harbin said in 2004.

Barbour’s office did not confirmed the plane ride or the nature of the governor’s relationship with Williams.

“He was very outgoing and very convincing and all of that came to his benefit in attracting clients,” Harbin added, of Williams. “He kept a lot of people around him. Like I said, he and Haley Barbour, (Dirk) Kempthorne, who’s the governor of Idaho, I know they were all people he saw on a regular basis. So he was able to make a lot of contacts and use those contacts to build clients. I can’t say that I understand how that works. I can tell you about surveying and employee benefits, but I don’t understand how you build that business and do that consulting.”

In 2004, Harbin said, he would wait to see what happens with the case against Williams, just like everyone else.

“You hate it, as anybody who had a friend who this had happened to would hate it. And you hope it’s not true,” Harbin said in 2004. “But all we can do is let the investigation and the trial take its course and see what happens.

Harbin suggested, partly tongue-in-cheek, that Williams might be able to employ his charm to beat his rap.

“You know,” Harbin said, “if anyone could talk their way out of it, if they give him 15 minutes, he might do it.”

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