Former Statesboro City Councilman Gary Lewis, indicted in December on a charge of extortion, admitted guilt Thursday under a plea agreement with the government, said Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Brian Tanner, who handled the case in federal court in Statesboro.
If the court accepts the recommendation, Lewis could face up to 15 months in federal prison, he said. However, according to court documents regarding the case, the court may accept or reject the agreement. If the court does not accept Lewis’ agreement, it must allow Lewis to withdraw his plea if he wishes.
The maximum possible sentence Lewis could face is up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release, according to U.S. Magistrate Judge G.R. Smith.
“With the guilty plea entered this past Thursday in federal court by former city councilman Gary Lewis on the charge of extortion, I would suggest that it is a very sad day for the city of Statesboro as it is apparent that there was a period of time in which the personal interests of elected officials came before that of those they represented,” said Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore. “Our citizens and those that invest and do business in our community do not deserve elected officials that put their personal interests above the citizens that they serve – legally or illegally, nor do they deserve employees of the city that do the same. “
Under the plea agreement, Lewis changed his plea, having pled not guilty in January during arraignment in federal court. He was then released on a $50,000 signature bond, secured by his personal property. The 65-year-old served 17 years on the council. He did not seek re-election this year and retired when his term ended Dec. 31.
Tanner said Lewis pled guilty to “the one charge in the indictment – extortion under color of official right.” The indictment stated “on or about Sept. 11, 2014,” 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."
A sentencing date has not yet been set, Tanner said, explaining that “a pre-sentencing investigative report” will be completed, then it should be two weeks to a month before a sentencing date is determined.
The plea was made Thursday in the Prince J. Preston Federal Building on North Main Street in Statesboro. Lewis was represented by Athens, Georgia-based attorney Daniel Woodrum of Prior, Daniel and Whitshire LLC.
The indictment did not name the businessman Lewis allegedly approached but states Lewis attempted "to knowingly obstruct, delay, and affect commerce."
In February and March 2014, members of the Statesboro 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.
Moore said Friday she does not condone such behavior by any city employee. “It is my pledge and has been my pledge since being elected to be intolerant of such,” she said. “We are a wonderful community with wonderful residents and a giving and supportive business community. I recommend that if you want to do business the wrong way, then Statesboro, Georgia isn't the place for you.”
The case was investigated by the Statesboro office of the FBI, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.