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Judge investigated for undisclosed fund often dictated county spending

    HOMERVILLE - The sheriff got a $23,485 patrol car, the tax assessor got a $2,407 computer and Homerville City Hall got its carpets cleaned for $665 — all with the stroke of a judge’s pen.
    As one of rural Clinch County’s most powerful politicians, Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III has been generous over the years in ordering the county to spend money on new equipment, upgrades and repairs.
    County commissioners, who control the budget under Georgia law, always complied — until they discovered the judge had ordered payments to five employees totaling $67,255. A June 8 audit report showed the money, paid out over six years, was kept off the books and was never taxed.
    Soon after commissioners reported Blitch to state authorities, FBI agents executed a search warrant on the judge’s office in Homerville, the county seat, on June 26.
    Meanwhile, a federal prosecutor subpoenaed county records related to the undisclosed payments as part of a grand jury investigation.
    Clinch County commissioners say the secret payments are just one example of how Blitch, chief judge of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, has usurped their control of the county budget — which came to only $3.5 million last year — by holding back thousands of dollars in court fines and fees and dictating how those funds are spent.
    ‘‘At one point I did ask him if he could do that,’’ John W. Strickland, the commission chairman, said of the judge. ‘‘He said he didn’t know if he could legally do it, but he’d do it anyway.’’
    In addition to the recently discovered payments to county workers, a review of Clinch County records by The Associated Press found 21 court orders Blitch signed since 1990 dictating $208,641 in spending — mostly for the courthouse and sheriff’s department.
    Commissioners say the court orders have allowed officials to bypass the normal budget process by going to the judge for handouts.
    ‘‘If I understand the law, judges do not have the authority to do that,’’ said Jim Grubiak, staff attorney for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. ‘‘It shouldn’t happen at all. If it happens, it’s under the radar.’’
    He pointed to a 1995 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that a DeKalb County judge overstepped his authority when he ordered county commissioners to install a fire sprinkler system in the courthouse.
    The FBI and the office of Maxwell Wood, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, both declined to comment on the subpoenas and the search of Blitch’s office.
    Blitch and his attorney, Robert Willis of Jacksonville, Fla., also declined to comment when contacted by The AP.
    ‘‘We’re just grieved for the whole situation,’’ said Nancy Morgan, a minister who oversees a Homerville thrift store filled with donated clothing and furniture for the poor. ‘‘Nobody knows details and no one’s taking any sides. I think everybody’s keeping quiet about it.’’
    Located on the western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and just north of the Florida state line, Clinch County could be considered one of the largest and smallest counties in Georgia.
    The county’s land area, mostly undeveloped timberland, is the third largest in the state. But its population of 6,878 ranks 16th from the bottom among Georgia’s 159 counties.
    Blitch, 73, grew up here in a prominent family. His father, Erwin Blitch, owned substantial timber acreage and the ACME pharmacy that remains open, under different ownership, near the Homerville courthouse.
    The judge’s mother, Iris Faircloth Blitch, was a Democratic Party activist who won election to the U.S. House in 1954, becoming the first Georgia congresswoman elected to serve a full term.
    Blitch continued the family tradition of political prestige when he was sworn in as a judge in December 1980. His wife, former state Sen. Peg Blitch, served in the Legislature from 1991 to 2004.
    ‘‘Basically, he’s a good man,’’ said Linda Peterson, a Clinch County magistrate judge. ‘‘If he did anything, he didn’t do it to hurt anybody.’’
    Between 1990 and 2005, Blitch ordered the county to spend $148,411 on improvements to the Clinch County courthouse such as courtroom remodeling, roof repairs, a jury room air conditioner and a new copy machine.
    Sheriff Winston Peterson got a new $23,485 patrol car via a court order Blitch signed Oct. 14, 2005 — after county commissioners denied Peterson the money. The judge also approved $4,058.30 for car-mounted camera equipment for the sheriff’s department.
    Also in 2005, the judge ordered the Clinch County tax commissioner to receive $2,631.33 for an alarm system, computer printers, a filing cabinet and a paper shredder. The tax assessor got $2,407 for a computer system in 2000 via one of Blitch’s orders.
    ‘‘They would go to the judge and circumvent us,’’ said Barry Hart, vice chairman of the Clinch County Commission. ‘‘It’s making him look like he was Santa Claus, giving something to somebody.’’
    A court order and accompanying receipt dated Nov. 17, 2003, show Blitch ordering $1,786 to be spent on four handguns — one each for himself, the sheriff, the court clerk and a sheriff’s deputy.
    Even Homerville City Hall got a little money through Blitch — $665 for carpet cleaning in 2000. A receipt attached to the judge’s order notes the cleaning was payback for temporary ‘‘use of building for court.’’
    The Blitch family has been targeted by federal authorities before. When a 1996 fire destroyed the Homerville Ford dealership owned by Blitch’s wife and their son, Brett Blitch, investigators suspected arson.
    A federal jury in 1999 convicted Brett Blitch of hiring someone to set fire to the car lot so he could collect insurance money. He served five years in prison and was released in 2004.
    Before his son’s arrest, the elder Blitch said he felt the authorities were after him because of his elected position.
    ‘‘Deep down, they want a judge,’’ Blitch told the Georgia Times-Union in April 1998. ‘‘You can smell it on them.’’
    Strickland and Hart said the expenses ordered by Blitch come from an account in which the judge deposits money from court fines and fees before releasing them to the general fund controlled by the county commission.
    In a Jan. 13, 2006, court order, Blitch tells Daniel Leccese, his court clerk, to keep a balance of $30,000 in the court account — with excess funds transferred to the commission at a rate of $10,000 a month.
    In addition to that fund was a separate, undisclosed account that Blitch used to pay $67,255 to five county employees. The money came from an extra $10 in court fees the judge ordered assessed for criminal cases, beginning in 2001.
    The judge began ordering the payments a month after commissioners voted in August 2001 to stop paying employees extra for supervising misdemeanor probationers in addition to their full-time duties.
    Instead, the commission hired a private contractor to handle probation cases. Blitch’s order reinstated the monthly employee stipends of $250 to $300 that the commissioners had voted to discontinue.

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