Not long after local attorney and Georgia House candidate Wright McLeod learned Richmond County Magistrate Court Judge William Jennings had signed a warrant for his arrest last week involving a bizarre allegation against him of false imprisonment, he quickly sent a text to his three daughters.
“I simply said, ‘This will likely get worse before it gets better, but I did nothing wrong. I did exactly what your mother and I would want you to do if you were ever in a similar situation,’” Wright said, sitting in his real estate law firm’s conference room in Evans. “You treat an individual with respect, with courtesy, with dignity and you handle the situation in a legal manner. And that was done in this case.”
His daughters, whose ages range from 16 to 24, were in complete shock that he was about to booked into the Charles B. Webster Detention Center on Phinizy Road.
“I have never been arrested. I have never been accused,” said McLeod, who is also a retired naval officer. “I think the last time I even got a speeding ticket was when I was going to see my girlfriend and soon-to be-wife more than 20 years ago.”
After sitting in jail for about two hours and being released on his own recognizance last Thursday, McLeod is still stunned that a former employee of the Augusta Warrior Project, Janice Jamison, is claiming he and Amy Palowitch, the director of staff and operations at AWP, refused to allow her to leave the office on Dec. 28 until they searched her purse and backpack.
Jamison told the judge last week that she would not allow McLeod and Palowitch to search her personal belongings and, therefore, deputies from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office were called to the scene.
In her statement to the court requesting a criminal arrest warrant, Jamison said that both McLeod and Palowitch entered her office and told her that she was being terminated.
“I asked why, to which he replied I would be told at a later date and I needed to collect my belongings and I would be escorted from the building,” Jamison wrote, referring to McLeod. “I relinquished the company laptop and cellphone, packed my belongings and then was told by the two of them I would not be able to leave until I let them search my purse and backpack.”
Jamison claims that McLeod and Palowitch prevented her from leaving the building.
“Amy Palowitch stood in front of the door and Wright McLeod in front of my desk,” she stated. “I refused and told them they didn’t have the right.”
The only reason that McLeod, who serves as a volunteer board member for the Augusta Warrior Project, was at the AWP office that day was that the staff had requested he assist in the termination of Jamison.
“I have been asked to assist in the terminating of employees before and have done so,” McLeod said. “I was asked to assist in the terminating of this employee and did so. I always have a witness and, all I can say is, this employee was terminated for cause.”
“The termination was done legally, it was done extremely professionally and it was done ethically,” McLeod. “Never once did I state or infer that she was not to leave the office.
In fact, I was there to get her to leave the office. And I think the evidence will show all of that to be true.”
According the report from the sheriff’s office, Jamison claimed that she had told McLeod and Palowitch “multiple times” that she wanted to leave, but they refused.
She then alleges that McLeod told her that she could leave, but her personal belongings would have to remain at the office and would be returned to her at a later date.
At that point, Jamison stated the sheriff’s deputies were called to Augusta Warrior Project’s office.
“Mr. McLeod advised us that Ms. Jamison was just fired and he wanted to search her belongings because he believes that there is some property that belonged to the business in her purse or book bag,” Deputy Shane Van Dyke wrote in his Dec. 29 report. “We advised Mr. McLeod that no one could search her bags without her permission, and he advised us that we were wrong.”
Before the deputies escorted Jamison out of the building, the report states that she gave McLeod one black binder that belonged to the company, but that she “didn’t have anything else that belonged to them.”
Once she arrived at her car, Jamison gave the deputies multiple keys to Augusta Warrior Project’s office.
When the deputies returned the keys to Palowitch and McLeod, they asked why Jamison had been fired.
“They stated that they believe that she stole a large amount of data that belonged to the company and she was seen using different memory sticks on different occasions,” the report states. “I asked them what kind of information did they believe was stolen, they advised me that it was pertaining to veterans’ personal information. They also believed she stole product information, which could cost them a large amount of money if it went to their competitors.”
On the advice of his attorneys, McLeod says he cannot elaborate on those allegations against Jamison.
“I want to tell everything and there will be an opportunity to tell everything,” McLeod said. “Wright McLeod has always been for transparency. For getting the truth out as quickly as possible and we tried to do that. But at this point, talking about the specific incident is completely counter to what the lawyers are advising me, even though I sure as hell want to.”
Currently, McLeod and his attorneys are waiting to receive the transcript from last week’s court hearing and a copy of the body camera video that the deputies were wearing that day.
“The video will clearly show that Ms. Jamison never came forward and said, ‘He won’t let me leave,’ or ‘She won’t let me leave,’” McLeod said. “At all times, there were two of us in the room, me and the director of staff and operations, Amy Palowitch.”
Also, at no time, did the termination become hostile, McLeod insists.
“It was very civil. There was never a Mexican standoff,” McLeod said. “There was never the blocking of the door. It was, ‘We need to ensure what belongs to you, you get and what belongs to Augusta Warrior Project, we get.’”
And yet, the judge signed the warrants for the arrests of McLeod and Palowitch, ruling there was probable cause to support a charge of false imprisonment.
“I am mad as hell,” McLeod said, when asked about the accusations against him. “This did not need to happen. It should not have happened. We did nothing wrong. If the call came today to do it all over again, we would do exactly what we did on Dec. 28. No different. I have not learned anything that has convinced me to do it any differently or any other way.”
In fact, McLeod said he sincerely believes Jennings was wrong in signing the warrants for his and Palowitch’s arrest.
“I disagree with the warrant being signed. I disagree with the judge’s decision,” said McLeod, who has previously served as a municipal judge in Hephzibah. “I am a former judge. Judges are not perfect. It is a very, very preliminary process. I think the judge made the wrong decision, but I believe in the judicial system. I believe in the judiciary and I believe, in the end, everything will come to light. At the end of the day, we have been falsely accused.”
However, McLeod admits he is extremely upset by the heartache that this arrest has caused his family.
Last week, his wife, Sheri, accompanied him to the jail on Phinizy Road, where his mugshot was taken, he was booked and he had to wait a few hours before he was bonded out.
As the McLeods entered and exited the jail, several members of the local media were there taking photos and filming the arrest.
McLeod, who is running in the Georgia House District 123 race, said his wife was furious.
“The judge put a bond on me for $15,000 and Mrs. Palowitch for $15,000,” he said. “My wife and I own our house, so my wife had to go in with me to bond both me and Mrs. Palowitch out. That was painful.”
However, when the McLeods arrived at the jail, they discovered his wife did not have to accompany him after all.
“When we got there, the judge had changed it from a property bond to what is called an O.R., or own recognizance, bond so my wife did not have to sign our house over,” he said. “But, when we went in that morning, that was why she was there.”
The entire situation has been extremely stressful for his entire family, McLeod said.
“My wife is mad,” McLeod said, adding that each of his daughters are handling the situation much differently.
His 24-year daughter, Collier, is a law student at the University of Georgia, and seems to understand that this is simply a legal process that the family unfortunately must deal with, McLeod said.
However, his middle daughter, Margaret, a senior at Emory University, is deeply upset that he was booked and had to sit in jail.
“My middle daughter is probably the most affected because she doesn’t want anything to do with Augusta, Georgia. Period. Ever,” McLeod said, shaking his head. “Or, at least that is what she says. And then our younger daughter is only 16. I don’t know that she quite realizes the situation.”
Of course, McLeod said his youngest daughter may become more impacted by the arrest if his mugshot appears in this week’s edition of The Jail Report and attracts the attention of her classmates.
“Let’s just say, I certainly don’t agree with the system right now,” McLeod said. “What has occurred did not need to occur. However, I like public service. I like helping people. I like making a difference. I enjoy politics. But I don’t enjoy sitting in jail. I think, in the end, this is going to work out. The price that I have to pay, it’s fine. But when it comes to the family, that’s tough. I think sometimes that price might be a little high.”
When asked if he believes he was unfairly targeted by Jamison because he is a candidate running for the Georgia House, McLeod said he is not certain.
“There is no doubt that my desire to serve in public office has made this a much more visible case. There is just no doubt in that,” McLeod said. “Now, would she have attempted to file the warrant had I not been running for the House seat? I don’t know. It is certainly awfully odd. It is extremely odd. Normally, a situation like this is a civil matter, not a criminal matter. So, it is extremely odd that this is going down the criminal road. And we expect there to be a civil matter, as well. You have to prepare and we are preparing for a civil matter, too.”
Not long after Sims announced she was retiring and not seeking re-election, McLeod quickly told supporters on July 4 that he would run for the seat.
McLeod has already raised more than $100,000 for his campaign, but he is now facing what he describes as “baseless” accusations from a woman who he believes is “unfit for her position” and “stole from veterans.”
However, McLeod insists that he will still be District 123’s next state representative.
“We are going to win,” McLeod said, smiling. “We are going to give it everything we’ve got. The support that we have received is overwhelming. And we are going to work on everything. We are going to fix the schools in Richmond County. We are going to fix the roads in Columbia County. We are going to help Fort Gordon get a new gate. And we are going to make Augusta University the third flagship university in the state.”
Of course, McLeod knows all too well how controversy can derail a campaign.
Back in 2012, McLeod lost the Republican primary for the 12th Congressional District to Republican rival Rick Allen because his camp was hammered with an official complaint to the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.
The complaint, filed by Allen, accused the McLeod campaign of stealing proprietary donor information from Rick W. Allen for Congress, accepting excessive contributions involving the Wright McLeod campaign office and failing to properly disclose expenditures by not itemizing campaign expenses and reimbursements.
At the time, it appeared Allen was looking to hit McLeod’s campaign with a final knockout punch just before the primary.
“Due to the volume and pattern of these violations, which suggest either incompetence or willful disregard for the law, we urge the Commission to take actions to investigate these matters fully and to carefully review all aspects of operations of the McLeod campaign for other potential violations,” the Allen campaign stated in 2012.
In response, the McLeod campaign immediately shot back with a press release claiming McLeod was being attacked for being too frugal.
“Allen Campaign Calls on McLeod to Follow Their Example to Spend and Borrow,” the press release read. The McLeod campaign announced that it had spent less than the other viable candidates, including Allen.
But, unfortunately for McLeod, the Federal Election Commission didn’t dismiss all of the allegations against him until September 2013.
That was more than a full year after the 2012 Republican primary.
“Upon further review of the allegations contained in the complaint, and information supplied by you, the Commission, on September 10th, 2013, voted to find no reason to believe with respect to certain allegations, dismissed the remaining allegations and closed the file,” the FEC wrote.
For McLeod, it was a victory, but an accusation that probably cost him the 2012 election.
“Justice prevailed,” McLeod stated in 2013. “This was an unnecessary and expensive legal fight in which the ethical allegations crossed the line, even by today’s standards. Instead of debating the issues, it became a fight over my integrity.”
It turned into a brutal fight that didn’t benefit McLeod or Allen in 2012, he said.
“The result, I was forced to defend my character,” McLeod wrote, “and the Republican Primary became a circular firing squad that caused the people of GA-12 to lose and John Barrow to win.”
Looking back at that Congressional race, McLeod admits it was extremely difficult having to combat false allegations.
“You have to have one hell of a stiff spine to do this,” McLeod said. “The last campaign, my only campaign that I’ve ever run, was, by those in the know, extremely dirty. That was our first rodeo. It cost me in excess of $50,000 in legal fees that I had to pay. In the end, we were completely vindicated and we won, but we lost the political race.”
It was a difficult pill to swallow, McLeod said.
“Whether that caused the loss, it is hard to determine. I certainly believe it did,” he said. “And it has taken me a long time to get over it. Rick (Allen) has apologized. I don’t think Rick intended it to go as far as it did. And I have accepted it and I have moved on. My wife and children have not.”
For that reason, the timing of this allegation of false imprisonment against him by Jamison is particularly painful, McLeod said.
“Here we are again,” McLeod said. “You can’t help but see the irony in this situation. I think the last time it was very calculated. How calculated this one is? I just don’t know.”
While McLeod said the response that he has received this past week from the public has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he has also been surprised by the fact that some individuals who have had past legal dealings with his real estate law firm and homeowner association management company have been anxious to throw stones at him.
“Here is how I look at things: If you want to do something, if you want to make something better, you are going to make somebody mad,” McLeod said. “And the neighborhoods that we are involved in, at the request of the board — remember that we work for the board — those neighborhoods are better.”
If you live in a neighborhood that has a homeowners association, the residents must follow certain rules and regulations within that particular community, he said.
“I mean, we don’t make new rules. All we do is enforce the rules that they have already agreed to,” McLeod said. “And it does make people mad. Some people believe that it is their house, so they get to do whatever they please. But when you choose to live in a planned community, the answer to that question is, ‘No. You do not.’”
Considering the stress and pain that the last election in 2012 caused his family, McLeod was asked whether it was worth running for the Georgia House under the current circumstances.
“Is it worth it? You know, I want to leave my home, Augusta, this district, a little better than I’ve found it,” said McLeod, a native Augustan. “This is one way to do it. I believe in public service.”
However, the price of politics is particularly high on certain days, McLeod said.
“You acknowledge that some days are better than others and last week was not a particularly good week,” McLeod said. “I mean, I literally sat in jail for two hours for something that I flat out did not do. But if that is the price I have to pay to serve on the board for the Augusta Warrior Project and help the veterans, so be it.”