Special Investigator Criminal Division of the
State Law Department
of Georgia, 1959-60
In the decade
of the 1950’s a number of scandals broke out in the administration of the State of Georgia. They were first investigated by local authorities and highly publicized in the media. In November, 1958
a new governor, Ernest Vandiver, was elected promising to clean up corruption. Unlike many politicians he was serious about
it. He established the “Criminal Division” in the Attorney General’s
Office (officially called the State Law Department) but with a secret provision that it reported directly to the Governor, not to the Attorney
General, who was a separately elected official who had held office for many years.
The Criminal Division
was set up under a career Assistant Attorney General with a sterling record of professional character and ethics, Robert H.
(Bob) Hall, who some years later was named to high State and Federal Judgeships. Its small staff was composed of three retired
ex-FBI agents and two secretaries. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had always paired
attorney investigators with accountants and the ex-FBI agents recommended that the Criminal Division add a CPA to aid them
in the financial side of the investigations.
In searching for
a qualified CPA they approached Mount & Carter, the firm that I was working with because it had become known for performing
some high profile governmental audits involving investigations. Since I was the auditor that had done most of this kind of
work, the firm sent me to talk with Bob Hall. He and the ex-FBI agents outlined the work that was expected of an accountant
working with the team indicating that it would be part time but could involve a large amount of time during the coming two
years. It turned out that Bob knew my father and he took a special interest in me. Privately he commented, “Jim, if
you ever thought of starting your own CPA practice this would be the ideal opportunity.” Such a thought had never crossed
my mind until that moment. At that time I had only four years experience and was very happy working for Mount & Carter,
then the leading local CPA firm in Atlanta, but it was not a “national” firm like Price Waterhouse or Arthur Andersen. Those were the firms I aspired to work for some day. I had maintained hopes that M
& C might eventually merge with one of the national firms but Mr. W. J. Carter, the dynamic Senior Partner was adamant
that he would never merge. Besides that he had two sons working in the firm, one already a partner, who were ahead of me in
seniority and well as right to inherit the firm. I had skyrocketed to success in the firm from a semi-senior accountant to
a senior manager in few years gaining unparalleled experience in government auditing and investigatory work. I was very happy
there and really had no wish to leave.
But as I thought
the matter through I concluded that I had not much further to progress in a family dominated firm that would not consider
merger with a national firm. So I decided that Bob had a brilliant idea for me. I
worked out the arrangements with him and then resigned from Mount & Carter and announced the formation of my own firm. Years later M & C did finally merge with Coopers & Lybrand and many, many
years later that firm merged with Price Waterhouse. I have often wondered how different my career would have been had I stayed
with M & C. I am sure I would have earned a lot more money, but I doubt that I would have enjoyed my professional career
half as much.
Because I was
by far the youngest and most innocent looking of the Criminal Division team, I often was called upon by my older ex-FBI mentors
to carry out undercover or “special” assignments, always under their expert tutelage. I “wore a wire”
many times…a special portable recorder to record conversations with suspects. I mean a real wire…a wire recorder, the kind used before tape recorders were invented. It recorded conversations
on a roll of wire that was very limited as to time as the wire was rather thick. The machine was also rather large, about
4” x 6” x 1”. It had to be strapped to my chest in the cavity
above my stomach using wide adhesive tape as it was also quite heavy. My ex-FBI colleagues wrapped the tape fully around my
entire body so the apparatus would not fall out of place. The fun began (for them) when it came time to rip off the tape.
The only way was to pull it off rapidly. That really hurt. I was the only team member honored with the privilege of wearing
the wire. To the best of my recollection we never got any useful evidence by using it. All that was accomplished was the removal
of a great deal of hair from the upper part of my torso.
One time we set
up a very sophisticated audio and video session to record an expected bribe attempt.
I waited in a drive-in restaurant in my convertible, top down, with the wire recorder in the glove compartment (that
had to be partially open so I could cut it on and so the microphone would pick up the conversation). Across from me was an
unmarked truck with a very large camera courtesy of a local TV station set to capture images through its back window. The rather extensive plan was to put the recorded conversation and the video together.
The TV station would have a scoop. There was only one problem. The subject apparently
suspected or was tipped off and never showed up.
Our use of the
polygraph was equally unsuccessful. I had used it previously in connection with
a Fulton County audit suspected thief to no avail as the subject drugged himself so thoroughly that he showed no reaction
when questioned. Our results were about the same.
I finally concluded that technology was not the answer to criminal investigations.
How times have changed!
The Criminal Division
launched numerous investigations but principally concentrated on corruption in the previous administration of former Governor
Marvin Griffin, the main objective of its creation by Governor Vandiver.
1959-61, there were more and more exposures and news reports about alleged corruption involving the former governor's friends
and cronies, especially his brother, Cheney Griffin. Most of our investigations were directed toward Cheney and State Purchasing
Department officials but in a few cases we attempted to get evidence directly involving the ex-governor. Based upon reports
of financial irregularities that could be proven by gaining access to the ex-governor’s bank accounts, my daring colleagues
prepared me for a highly secret mission. I was to go the Bainbridge, Georgia
and present myself at the First National Bank and by prearrangement obtain access to the ex-governors bank account records.
I was told that since it was illegal to use an assumed name to register at the motel and present myself at the bank, I should
use my first and middle name only.
So I drove to
Bainbridge one Monday morning, registered in a motel as James Pickett, and went to the bank where the officer expecting me
sat me down in a room with the ex-governor’s records. All was going splendidly and I saw enough the really arouse my
interest when the bank officer called me to the telephone. One of my ex-FBI buddies
sounding sincerely worried said, “Jim, you’ve got to get out of there right now. They are on to us. Now listen
carefully, tell the bank you have an urgent reason to leave, go back slowly in your car to the motel and check out, and drive
slowly out of the town and the county. Do not do anything suspicious or rash and be careful not to drive fast even if followed
so they can’t get you for speeding. We are afraid your life may be in danger.” The next hour was one of the longest
of my life but by following instructions I gradually left Bainbridge behind and sped all the way back to Atlanta. When I got there I found that my ex-FBI colleagues were almost frantic with fear that I had been apprehended
because I had failed to stop and telephone them from along the way that I was OK. It made me feel good that they cared and
our team came to be even closer thought the trip was a complete failure.
I was given two
credentials as an investigator. One correctly stated that I was a Special Investigator for the Criminal Division of the State
Law Department. The other, the one I used more frequently, stated that I was Sales Tax Investigator for the State Department
of Revenue. It got me into many businesses without setting off alarms about investigating corruption.
We received many
allegations of all kinds. One interesting tip was about the possible ownership by a high state official of an interest in
an abortion clinic. Yours truly was wired and sent into the clinic alone using the Sales Tax Investigator credential. At that time abortion was a felony in Georgia and most everywhere. I got into the
records but could not prove who owned the business. Results were similar in other businesses I visited but occasionally I
hit pay dirt while going through financial records. What I learned was that when investigating financial crimes against the
state one must be extremely patient when a hoped for source of evidence fails to pan out. We were more successful where we
had whistleblower allegations from fairly reliable sources.
Back in those
times we never pursued sexual adventures by suspects unless they involved theft of state moneys and the press never would
have published salacious goings on. For example I and another colleague interviewed the girl friend of the married Assistant
State Purchasing agent and confirmed with her and with automobile dealer records that she had received a new car as a gift
from her lover. The media following the case learned all about this but only
published the details of the use of state funds omitting the sexual connotations. How times have changed!
Before the Criminal
Division was set up by the governor Fulton County had named a special prosecutor to investigate corruption in the Griffin
administration and had exposed a great deal. One of the main exposes was a tractor dealer who sold hundreds of tractors to
the state and its counties every year in spite of strict procurement laws and regulations requiring competitive bidding.
Jones was a star John Deere tractor dealer who had set up individual tractor sales companies in many of the 159 Georgia counties.
He practically controlled all public tenders and procurements of tractors by the State and its counties through blatant fraudulent
Jones was spectacularly
successful in selling tractors across the entire state because he was able to place the minimum three bids for any sale from
three of his companies. Collusion from inside the State Purchasing Department assured that only Jones’ companies received
the bid requests. Thus he was bidding against himself and had no competition. By the time we started investigating him Jones
had already been exposed and, in fact caught in the act of attempted bribery.
My job, of course,
was to examine Jones’ companies accounting records looking for evidence of payoffs and bribes as well as for proof that
he was controlling all the bids. The latter was easy as I examined the bid documents themselves in the State Purchasing Department
and found that Jones had been so confident that he would actually fill out the three bid proposals simultaneously showing
three different tractor company names but all signed by him with his own name. And
he frequently signed them with a ballpoint pen on top of each other so that we could actually see the imprint of the signature
of one upon the face of the other two. Experts from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also proved that all three bids in
many cases were prepared on the same typewriter in Jones main office.
What we needed
was proof that the scheme reached up through the State Purchasing Department to the governor himself or his brother, who we
knew handled most of his dirty work. I delved into the subpoenaed voluminous accounting books, bank statements and cancelled
checks of the Jones various businesses. Finally one day I found the first record of a check paid to Cheney Griffin, the governor’s
brother. Pulling out the cancelled checks I quickly located the check itself with Cheney Griffin’s endorsement on it.
I scanned forward and found another similar entry and cancelled check a month later.
And from there on I found monthly checks that represented kick backs for the franchise to sell almost all tractors
every year throughout the state. Cheney was actually on a monthly retainer from Candler Jones to buy his influence in state
government. This became our biggest case.
We gathered and
confirmed all the evidence and soon Cheney Griffin was indicted and faced trial. Jones after his own indictment finally accepted
his fate and very reluctantly turned state’s evidence at the highly publicized trial of the governor's brother. I and many others testified at the trial believing that we had an open and shut case.
Much of our voluminous evidence was thrown out by the judge for various technical reasons but a lot of evidence was admitted.
the efforts of the Georgia’s then most brilliant, astute and theatrical defense attorney, Bobby Lee Cook, the jury failed
to convict the former governor’s brother in spite of what we believed was overwhelming evidence. Cook drank heavily
as he defended his clients and was reputed to become more and more eloquent and persuasive the more alcohol he consumed. In
another similar case according to witnesses he actually wobbled out of the Fulton County Courthouse after winning and fell
all the way down the broad steep steps to the bottom and passed out.
Perhaps I should
point out that in those times it was not a frequent thing for a public official to be charged with corruption, was even less
frequent that he might be actually indicted and was extremely rare for him to be found guilty. If trials ever got to juries
in extreme and blatant cases they were even then very generous as it seemed that stealing from the government was not nearly
as bad as stealing from individuals. The type investigations the Criminal Division carried out had never been done before
in the state. The main punishment that a corrupt official received was to have his name besmirched in the press if the case
was high profile. I hate to say it but Georgia then was one of the most corrupt states in the country. I sincerely hope that has changed over the passing years.
With his brother
“exonerated,” even though he was besmirched by many other charges of corruption, ex-Governor Griffin retained
great popularity due to colorful populist stances, strong support for “education” (increasing school teachers’
pay) and had maintained a powerful political machine. He immediately began a campaign for a second term in the governorship
as the strongest candidate. His main opponent, Carl Sanders, a much younger State
senator, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform emphasizing all the scandals reported by the Criminal Division and the
media. Predictions were that Griffin would win.
I was a precinct
chairman for Sanders and one day in talking to a friend from the Atlanta Jaycees, Larry Lloyd who was working with Sanders
I suggested that they make check-sized photocopies of the numerous checks payable to Cheney Griffin that we had found and
have Sanders toss many copies out to the crowds at political rallies as he spoke about the Griffin administration’s
not sure that swung the election but Marvin Griffin lost the 1962 Democratic primary thus ending his political career and
Carl Sanders became governor. Despite his strong and successful anti-corruption campaign,
Sanders did not retain the Criminal Division of the State Law Department. When local newspapers launched a campaign for its
restoration, now Governor Sanders rejected the idea. I was now a State Senator and proposed a bill to restore the Criminal
Division that was rejected overwhelmingly by the legislature.
The Criminal Division
had served its purpose of destroying the re-election possibilities of Marvin Griffin, but nobody in the political power structure
of the state wanted to continue to investigate others. It was unthinkable at that time…and I fear it still may be.
I had gained priceless
experience and confidence in fighting corruption in government that stood me well in later years when I went to Latin America.
Many years later
I had a chance encounter with Governor Vandiver in a store while back in Atlanta doing some Christmas shopping. To my surprise,
after greeting and thanking me, he told me that the investigations by the Criminal Division were the aspect of his administration
of which he was the most proud. I believe he was a sincere and honest public official. I
have rarely said that about anyone.