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FULL STORY: Gary Lewis indicted for attempted extortion
Mayor: Councilman should resign immediately; plans to veto retirement raise
Gary Lewis Statesboro City Council WEB
Gary Lewis

A federal grand jury returned an indictment Thursday charging Statesboro City Councilman Gary L. Lewis, 65, with attempted extortion. Lewis has served 17 years on the council and, after not seeking re-election, was set to retire Dec. 31.

The indictment alleges 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 is given as "on or about" Sept. 11, 2014.

A news release on the website of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia noted that the charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. But, as the release also states, an indictment is only an accusation, not evidence of guilt, and Lewis is entitled to a fair trial, with the prosecution having the burden of proof.

Lewis, reached by phone at his workplace, a Statesboro barbershop, about 4:40 p.m. Thursday, said, "No sir, not yet," when asked if he had been informed of the indictment.

After a portion of the U.S. Attorney's Office press release was read to Lewis, he said he had no comment.

"No, I don't, I'm not familiar," he said.

Lewis said he would try to find out about it and call later.

When the shop was called again at 5:35 p.m., someone there suggested calling his cellphone. A voicemail message left on the cellphone did not result in a call back.

Mayor Jan Moore issued a statement calling for Lewis' immediate resignation.

"The people of Statesboro deserve honest, ethical city government, and it's the responsibility of every elected official to instill confidence in the democratic process," Moore said. "The actions alleged in this case reflect poorly on Statesboro, and as mayor, I take that personally. For the good of the city, I would encourage Mr. Lewis to resign his seat immediately."

She said the city will inform Gov. Nathan Deal of the indictment.

"The governor has the power to suspend an indicted city official, but given that Mr. Lewis' term ends at the end of the month, resignation would better serve the city than removal," Moore said.

"I am confident that our justice system will give Mr. Lewis a fair hearing while also protecting the residents of Statesboro," she continued. "I am fiercely protective of this city and its reputation. Anyone and everyone involved with city government will continue to cooperate with this case as needed. To keep moving our city forward requires cooperative spirit and public trust, and together we will stand up against any breech of that trust."

The case was investigated by the Statesboro office of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office announcement said. Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Brian Tanner is prosecuting the case. However, questions were referred to First Assistant U.S. Attorney James D. Durham.

Durham said "not with regard to Mr. Lewis" when asked whether any more indictments are likely to come out of the investigation. The federal attorneys, he said, do not comment on even the existence of investigations of individuals who have not been charged.

An arrest had not been made, and Durham said he believed Lewis will be summoned to appear.

 

Context

The actual indictment, occupying just one double-spaced page with attorneys' signatures carried on a second page, offers very little detail. It does include wording to make the case a federal one, by asserting that Lewis' by his alleged action attempted "to knowingly obstruct, delay, and affect commerce." (Read the indictment at left.)

It does not name the businessman.

Several months before the alleged occurrence, 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-thru windows for off-premises consumption. The idea was dropped for lack of a motion.

Later last year, the Savannah-based Parker's convenience store chain opened a store of a new design, emphasizing its drive-thru, on Statesboro's Brampton Avenue. 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 this way.

 

Retirement hike

On Tuesday, City Council had, by a three-member majority, passed a raise in the retirement benefits of elected city officials. With the qualifying age for full retirement being 65 and Lewis already that age, he would be the one official to benefit almost immediately.

Lewis seconded the motion made by Councilman Will Britt. Also leaving office at the end of the month but at age 41, Britt would not qualify for the retirement benefits for 24 years. But after the increase, Lewis would receive more retirement pay than he does salary as an active council member.

Moore announced Thursday that she will veto the increase.

"Even before this indictment, I expressed my opposition to having lame duck members vote on a measure that financially benefits them," Moore said. "I will veto the increase in elected officials retirement benefit tomorrow (Friday)."

 

Other members react

Councilman John Riggs summed up his reaction to the indictment as "shock and disbelief."

"I hope it's not true, but I hope the truth comes out in the end," he said.

Other council members reacted similarly.

"It's disappointing, to say the least," said Councilman Travis Chance. "I hope that that's not the case, but obviously if a federal grand jury brought down an indictment, I guess we'll have to see what transpires out of the case."

Britt said he knew only what he had seen in the newspaper's email blast and had no real comment.

"My thoughts are with everybody involved," Britt said.

Councilman Phil Boyum said that for the city's sake, he hopes the allegations are not true.

"However, if the allegations are true, Gary has discarded nearly 20 years of public service and tarnished his own reputation and that of the city, all for an attempt at personal gain," Boyum said. "For me, at this point, I'm looking forward to working with incoming councilman Sam Jones as we start a new chapter for the city of Statesboro in 2016."

Lewis, who has represented District 2 and is the council's longest serving current member, in July announced his decision not to seek another term. He cited his health and a desire to work for change from outside city government as a community activist. Jones then qualified unopposed for the seat.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

Lewis Indictment
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