Locals were stunned this week when the Georgia State Patrol revealed that Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith was placed on administrative leave with pay from his position as a lieutenant with GSP due to a “policy violation.”
Smith, who has worked for the GSP for more than 20 years, is now under investigation.
Now, it may be nothing, but the GSP doesn’t usually put a lieutenant with 20-plus years of experience on administrative leave because he or she failed a physical fitness test or their shoes weren’t properly shined.
It’s likely something much bigger.
Most Augustans will remember back in August 2012 when the <<IT>>Metro Spirit<<IT>> ran a cover story about an incident that happened at Wild Wing Cafe on Washington Road one Friday night.
Basically, there was this golf tournament at West Lake and, afterwards, a few of the guys took the fun over to the bar at Wild Wing.
Will Scholer, the manager at Wild Wing, said one of the guys from the golf tournament got upset over the food he had ordered and ended up throwing the plate back at the bartender.
Everything escalated from there, with bouncers getting involved and having to physically escort the guys from the bar.
Even two Richmond County sheriff’s deputies working specials had to help wrestle one of the guys to the ground.
Who showed up following the altercation?
Donnie Smith, then a candidate for his District 7 commission seat.
Ironically, Smith started his law enforcement career with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department, but he wasn’t there to help the deputies out that night.
Instead, he was standing in the Wild Wing parking advocating on behalf of the drunks who had just caused a major disturbance at the bar.
“Donnie got there and he started talking with the cops,” Will Scholer told the <<IT>>Metro Spirit<<IT>> in 2012. “Pretty much he was just trying to act like a big shot.”
But Smith denied that anything out of the ordinary happened that night.
“I went to pick up someone and give him a ride home,” he told the newspaper in 2012 “That’s all I can tell you.”
It was an incident that raised a few eyebrows, but voters in District 7 didn’t seem to be overly concerned.
Smith received 55 percent of vote in the 2012 race for District 7 over his opponent, former Richmond County School Board member Ken Echols.
While Smith’s candidacy for the Augusta Commission started off a little shaky, he has proven himself to be a pretty solid leader for not only his district, but the entire county.
He also isn’t afraid of calling people out if necessary.
Just a few weeks ago, he took on the architects, Virgo Gambill, for what he saw as major blunders in the $40 million renovations to the Marble Palace on Greene Street.
Smith looked directly at representatives from Virgo Gambill and admonished them for their work on the Municipal Building.
“There is a certain group of people that I think are responsible for that,” Smith said earlier this month. “I can remember Virgo Gambill coming in here and asking for money from us and I certainly remember that I was unhappy with their performance then and I’m unhappy with it now. I voted against it then, and they are the only people in this room that are responsible for what we’ve got today. And gentlemen, I’m just as disappointed today as I was the first time I met y’all.”
Smith also pounced on employees from the Augusta Animal Services after learning the shelter euthanized more than 6,500 animals in 2013
The shelter was facing the possibility of having to euthanize even more animals this year because the department had lost its part-time veterinarian in May and had no way of spaying or neutering the animals.
Smith urged the director to think outside the box in order to save the lives of more animals.
“We have to find a solution today about how to proceed to keep from killing 6,000 animals in our community,” Smith told the director.
And, of course there is Smith’s beef with Gary LeTellier, the executive director of Augusta Regional Airport.
In November, tensions erupted between Smith and LeTellier during a debate over the authority of Augusta Fire Department at the airport.
For more than a year, there had been a battle brewing over who was the official “incident commander” in the case of a fire at the airport: Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James or Augusta Regional Airport Fire Chief Willie Paulk.
Smith told the commission that he had been working for months to help resolve the situation, but it had gone nowhere.
“Ever since day one, when I got sworn in up here, I have been trying to get this done,” Smith told the commission in November. “Now, 11 months into my term, I have been fed up with this. I don’t want the public at risk.”
LeTellier agreed that the situation needed to be resolved, but he insisted it was unfair to characterize the airport as the “obstructionist.”
“I do think we can to fix this, but it isn’t going to get fixed by pointing fingers and calling names,” LeTellier said in November. “And Commissioner Smith, just so you know, I deeply resent your approach. I do.”
Smith definitely doesn’t hold his tongue when it comes to things he is passionate about.
A prime example of that was during the budget hearings last year when the commissioners began discussing the funding for the public defender’s office compared to the district attorney’s office.
“The public defender’s office gets an assistant public defender, and the district attorney’s office gets one,” Smith told his colleagues during the budget meeting, scratching his head in confusion.
Smith insisted that was not fair because the district attorney’s office is terribly understaffed trying to handle more than 3,500 felony cases a year.
He said that the district attorney’s office handles at least four times as many cases as the public defender’s office.
Therefore, he thought the district attorney’s office should receive more money.
“Somewhere, somebody is pushing for the public defender’s office to be funded one-on-one with the district attorney’s office,” Smith told his colleagues. “And the work is not one-on-one.”
Well, whether the argument was valid or not, one thing that Smith failed to disclose during the discussion was that he is romantically involved with Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright.
It wasn’t until Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett asked General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie whether Smith had a “conflict of interest” in discussing the funding for the district attorney’s office that the subject was even broached.
But Smith still didn’t publicly acknowledge the relationship.
Instead, he tried to play it off as if Lockett was asking about his position as a lieutenant with the Georgia State Patrol.
In the end, MacKenzie ruled Smith’s comments were not a conflict of interest.
Unusual to say the least.
No. 1, how can that not be conflict of interest? If Smith is romantically involved with the district attorney, he shouldn’t be publicly defending that department and asking his colleagues to give that office more money.
No. 2, why did Smith sidestep the issue of his relationship with Wright? After all, Lockett had a legitimate question.
And, finally, No. 3, what other issues is Smith sidestepping?
The Georgia State Patrol may soon have an answer for that last question.
Insiders are speculating what would have led to his suspension. Insubordination? A physical altercation with another employee? There are many strong willed men and women in law enforcement, so arguments aren’t unheard of. Word is his suspension was not sexual in nature, as was the case of Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Craven, who was placed on administrative leave in 2012 and ultimately fired after it was discovered he was having an affair with a married woman. And photographing it. Inside the state patrol hangar in Thomson.
He wasn’t at the commission meeting Tuesday, which is unusual for him, so we’ll have to wait and see what he has to say about the matter.