There may have been an occasion that ended happily and without incident when an elected official said “no comment” concerning allegations of bad behavior or illegal activity, but I’ll be damned if I can recall one locally.
Once famously popular, Columbia County Commissioner Scott Dean’s refusal to come clean concerning thousands of text messages back and forth at all hours of the day and night with a comely young female county employee did not directly result in political or civil consequence for him, but when he soon faced criminal charges involving sex crimes against his adopted daughter in an unrelated case, there were few in his hometown that were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There was no trust, and no goodwill left for the former political whiz kid.
When Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen was found to be secretly shuttling thousands in side compensation from Grovetown and Harlem for municipal tax collection into her personal accounts, she was given ample opportunity to explain herself to concerned supporters and citizens who wanted to understand her motivation and mindset. With the exception of a few measly phrases parceled out by her attorney, there has been no apology, no rational explanations and no “mea culpa.” Allen resigned from office in disgrace as the single most unpopular woman in the history of Columbia County politics.
State Representative Ben Harbin certainly dodged a legal bullet when his refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test after a nasty middle of the night car accident in Atlanta did not even cost him his license. Using a little known legal loophole, it has been rumored that Harbin used his connections to make sure the officer at the scene missed the mandatory license revocation hearing, which resulted in all alcohol-related charges against him being dropped in the matter. Harbin’s refusal to immediately explain his actions the night of the accident, his refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test and his “luck” in getting out of the alcohol charges may not have resulted in a political defeat (no real competition has ever emerged to take him on), but his political standing in the legislature plummeted, as has any chance that he will ever succeed in seeking higher political office.
I believe the “no comment” stand currently being employed by Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith will have a similar ending. His mysterious, and “out of the blue” medical disability retirement from the Georgia State Patrol seems pretty odd for a man who has had the physical wherewithal to play (“unaffected” from what I am told) multiple rounds of golf a week, and engage aggressively and articulately on any number of political debates at City Hall.
I made the prediction earlier, and I stand by it now: Smith will not serve out his entire term as commissioner. In the meantime, his steady refusals to discuss allegations that he faced separate investigations on charges of harassment of a subordinate and “double-dipping” (working a side job while on the clock with GSP) is also quickly eroding public trust and goodwill.
It is conceivable that Smith was in fact following GSP policy as he refused to discuss the alleged ongoing allegations concerning his professional duties, but why be silent on the topic of seeking a medical disability retirement, when, as a public official, you know it is going to generate huge publicity and speculation? Smith’s right to complete privacy in such matters was resigned, by him, when he decided to seek a position of public trust in the community. The exact nature of his medical ailments are really not germane, but if he thinks he can quietly slip out of the GSP in such a manner, while still under a two-month leave while his behavior is under investigation, he is insane.
And on the topic of that “medical disability,” if he is able to engage intellectually, and he is going to be cleared of wrongdoing “any minute” in those ongoing internal investigations that he is not allowed to discuss, isn’t there some job that a veteran officer can do at a desk, or on a computer, or in a training classroom, that will spare him the vigors of wrestling bad guys on the side of the road?
“No comment” works great for movie stars, bureaucrats under indictment or criminals in cuffs, but for elected officials, it should be rare and well justified. That is not the case here.
We sure don’t need sworn law enforcement officers, who also happen to be Augusta commissioners, pleading the fifth. And if Smith is about to collect 80 percent of his GSP salary for the rest of his life due to a physical or mental disability, the people who depend on him to represent them in the rough and tumble arena of Augusta politics deserve to understand why.