Former Statesboro City Councilman Gary Lewis, indicted on Dec. 3 on charges of attempted extortion, pleaded not guilty Tuesday during arraignment in federal court. He was released on a $50,000 signature bond, secured by his personal property.
Lewis, 65, served 17 years on the council. He did not seek re-election this year and retired when his term ended Dec. 31.
Lewis' arraignment was at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Prince J. Preston Federal Building on North Main Street in Statesboro. Federal Magistrate Judge G.R. Smith read the indictment, which states that Lewis attempted to obtain $2,500 cash "from a local businessman, in return for official acts, specifically, the passage of a local ordinance permitting drive-through alcohol sales." The date this occurred was "on or about" Sept. 11, 2014, according to the indictment.
Lewis was represented by Athens, Georgia-based attorney Daniel Woodrum of Prior, Daniel and Whitshire LLC. Woodrum spoke for his client in stating that Lewis was entering a plea of not guilty to the charges. Lewis did not speak, except in whispered conversation with Woodrum.
If convicted, Lewis could face up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release, Smith said.
When asked about posting bond, which Smith and Woodrum discussed at first as being $10,000, Woodrum stated Lewis had no funds and could not post a cash bond. He asked the court to consider a property or signature bond.
Smith reviewed Lewis' financial statements that were submitted to the court and questioned them, stating that it appeared that Lewis has a monthly surplus after expenses. Woodrum, after speaking with Lewis, told the court that Lewis spent his extra cash on repairing and "fixing up" a home for his sister, who Lewis said has cancer.
Smith said that expense was voluntary, as opposed to a debt owed to a bank or creditor, and said Lewis "barely" qualified for a court-appointed attorney.
"He has available assets he could use," Smith said.
It was unclear whether Woodrum was appointed by the court to defend Lewis. Woodrum told the Statesboro Herald that he intended to represent Lewis throughout the case, but he did not immediately respond to a message asking whether he was court appointed. He was not immediately available Tuesday, as he was in court elsewhere, according to a woman who answered the phone at his office.
Smith granted Lewis a $50,000 signature bond, with his personal real estate property as collateral. Lewis, as conditions of his pre-trial release, must pay the court $250 monthly and adhere to numerous mandates, including staying in the Southern Judicial District of Georgia, abiding by all laws and having no guns or weapons. Because a past DUI offense appears on Lewis' record, Smith also ordered him to stay away from all alcohol as well as drugs, and if he has any contact with any law enforcement agency, "even a traffic ticket," he must notify the court.
The indictment does not name the businessman Lewis allegedly approached but states Lewis attempted "to knowingly obstruct, delay, and affect commerce."
In February and March 2014, City Council discussed a proposal to change Statesboro's Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance to allow sales of beer and wine from drive-through windows for off-premises consumption. The proposal was dropped for lack of a motion.
Afterward, the Savannah-based Parker's convenience store chain opened a store featuring a new design with a drive-through window on Brampton Avenue in Statesboro. Company founder Greg Parker was quoted in a May 5, 2014, Statesboro Herald story about his interest in making all of the store's products, including beer and wine, available for purchase through the drive-through.
The case was investigated by the Statesboro office of the FBI, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Brian Tanner is prosecuting the case.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.