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Democrat Greg Hecht blasts Sam Olens on child protection, ethics

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Posted: August 27, 2014 6:04 p.m.
Updated: August 27, 2014 5:54 p.m.
Democrat Greg Hecht blasts Sam Olens on child protection, ethics

Greg Hecht, left, Democratic nominee for state attorney general, talks to Barbara Christmas Golden and her granddaughter Ally McCall, 11, during the Bulloch County Democratic Gala Saturday at the Russell Union Ballroom. Golden, former Professional Association of Georgia Educators executive and once a Democratic candidate for Congress, introduced Hecht at the gala.

Greg Hecht, the Democratic nominee for Georgia attorney general, accuses the incumbent Republican, Sam Olens, of inaction on protecting children and actions amounting to "covering up" on ethics questions surrounding Gov. Nathan Deal.

Hecht gave the keynote remarks at the 2014 Bulloch County Democratic Party Gala. A few more than 100 people attended the $30-per-ticket dinner Saturday in the Russell Union Ballroom at Georgia Southern University.

"Georgia is failing our children in those areas related to abuse and neglect," Hecht said. "Unfortunately, Georgia has found a one-size-fits-all type of protocol where they keep putting children back into homes where there's drug abuse, alcohol abuse and family violence and without the support of counseling centers."

Hecht's pointed criticism centers on the reported deaths of 180 children in 2013 whose families had Division of Family and Children Services involvement. The number, from an annual DFCS report, was up from 152 the year before.

Of the 180 deaths, 63 percent were classified as natural or accidental, including 23 percent reported as sleep-related infant deaths. But 26 of the deaths were counted as homicides. Hecht did not give this breakdown, from the Child Fatality Analysis.

But he noted that 3,000 Georgia child abuse investigations had gone beyond a 45-day legal limit, and similarly that 49 percent of child fatality review committees failed to determine a cause of death in the time allotted. Such delays, Hecht asserts, leave other children in those homes at risk.

The state's protocol emphasizes returning children to the care of relatives. Without proper screening, Hecht said, this can mean handing children over to older relatives who started the cycle of abuse decades ago, or to a "straw parent" who immediately returns the child to an abuser.

"We will provide protective, safe havens for children," Hecht said. "We will provide the children's mental health that's needed. We will make sure that we have an attorney general in office that doesn't turn his eyes away from the legal standard of protecting the best interest of the child."

Because of the accusatory nature of Hecht's comments, the Statesboro Herald contacted Olens' state office, and was referred to his campaign for a response.

"The Department of Law plays no role, nor has jurisdiction in policy decisions of any state agency, to include DFCS," Olens' campaign spokeswoman, Sheri Kell, said in an emailed reply.

Ethics cases

Hecht's attack on Olens for inaction on the ethics allegations also serves as a blast against Deal. Democrats, hoping to replace Deal with their gubernatorial nominee, Jason Carter, have been heartened by revelations about a state ethics investigation of Deal's 2010 campaign.

"Now, I know many of us don't expect much from the Deal-Olens administration, and why don't we? Well, that's because in 2012, we know, we were ranked 50th out of 50 states in enforcing public corruption and ethics laws," Hecht told Bulloch County Democrats.

That ranking was from a report by the Center for Public Integrity, the nonprofit, nonpartisan center that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for an unrelated story.

Hecht pointed to several intervals when he asserts that Olens should have appointed an independent investigator to look into the reports of ethics violations and did not. The first occurred in spring 2011 when a Republican-appointed state ethics director and deputy director presented documents suggesting that Deal had violated state campaign finance and disclosure laws, Hecht said.

"Did he appoint an independent investigator to determine if violations of the law had occurred like a nonpartisan district attorney or law enforcement officer should do? No," Hecht said.

Instead, the ethics director and deputy director were soon forced out and replaced, Hecht observed. He didn't name them, but the former ethics director was Stacey Kalberman; the deputy director, Sherilyn Streicker. Olens defended against a lawsuit brought by Kalberman, and the state lost, at a cost of more than $1.1 million, Hecht noted. That total includes $700,000 in court-awarded damages plus court costs and attorney fees.

Further ethics commission whistleblower claims, involving Streicker, a computer specialist and a staff attorney, have been settled for about $3 million. Hecht said this was taxpayer money that could have been used for other things.

Still, he noted, Olens has not appointed an independent investigator.

"In this particular case, we don't have someone covering law enforcement needs, we have someone covering up prosecution needs, covering up corruption," Hecht said.

For this story, Olens' campaign was also given a chance to respond to Hecht's calls for an independent investigator and use of the words "covering up."

"As has been stated exhaustively, two other investigations — one federal, one state — are currently pending," Sheri Kell said. "The Department of Law does not have the ability to appoint an independent special investigator and any suggestion to do so is political theater."

Kell added a counterblast in her email: "Our opponent's lack of a basic understanding of what the Office of the Attorney General is tasked with doing is actually quite shocking. He should spend more time learning what the office does instead of making false, negative attacks on our Attorney General."

Hecht, 50, who received his law degree from the University of Georgia, operates a law practice in Atlanta. He served as an assistant district attorney in the Clayton Judicial Circuit from 1989 to 1993.

He represented districts around Jonesboro for six years in the Legislature, including two terms in the House and one term in the Senate, ending in January 2003. He authored laws for child abuse reporting protocols and requiring criminal background checks for day care workers.

Although he decried a "lack of nonpartisanship" in the attorney general's office in regard to the ethics investigations, Hecht urged his listeners to support Democratic nominees, including Carter, U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, incumbent 12th Congressional District U.S. Rep. John Barrow and insurance commissioner nominee Elizabeth "Liz" Johnson. Johnson and Barrow attended the gala.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.


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