Chief Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the U.S. Southern District of Georgia delivered a scathing admonition as well as a prison sentence Monday to former Statesboro City Councilman Gary Lewis, who pled guilty to extortion in April.
In a surprise move, before sentencing, the court played recordings of 10 voicemail messages left on the Statesboro Herald's Soundoff call-in line, allegedly made by Lewis, uttering dark accusations about Statesboro's Mayor, Jan Moore.
Lewis pled guilty in April to demanding $2,500 from a victim, whom he identified by name in court Monday as Greg Parker, owner of Parker's convenience stores, in exchange for the passage of a Statesboro city ordinance that would allow drive-thru alcohol sales.
His sentencing, 15 months in federal prison, was overshadowed by the recordings submitted by Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Stanley Slater with the Statesboro office.
Slater said the messages had been given to the FBI by Statesboro Herald
operations manager Jim Healy and that the calls were made shortly after a news article about Lewis' guilty plea was published in April.
The messages left on the Soundoff voicemail system began the morning the article ran in the newspaper and continued for several days, Slater said. Each call, which was placed from a blocked number, was played in its entirety, with most of them defending Lewis and accusing Moore of racism, of making deals with Parker, of plotting against Lewis and more.
"Let's don't make the city of Statesboro a race issue with Gary Lewis," one call said. "What about the white boys in trouble?"
Another call said, "I went to school with you. We want you to come to our church and tell us why you don't like Gary Lewis."
"Gary Lewis was a good city councilman," one message stated. "Jan Moore is no good."
The calls mentioned several times that "dark days are coming" for Moore and that "law enforcement better be careful - you're going to get in trouble. Jan Moore, don't bring Ferguson to Statesboro."
In an interview with the Statesboro Herald after Lewis' sentencing, Moore said that the messages did not bother her.
"This isn't the first time I have been threatened since becoming mayor just over two and a half years ago," she said. "I have unabashedly worked for open and transparent government, free of personal interests, and I will not stop doing that. That is what the citizens of Statesboro deserve, nothing less. I make no apologies."
When Lewis' attorney, Daniel Woodrum, asked Slater if the FBI had traced the blocked calls to Lewis or conducted a voice comparison analysis, Slater said they had not, but she added, "My opinion is that it is Gary Lewis on the voicemails."
The deep male voice, obviously disguised in the calls, sounds very similar to Lewis' voice.
Wood's description of the calls was scathing, including words such as "pathetic, ineffective, cowardly" and "fantastical, ridiculous statements," and she suggested the caller may have been inebriated at times.
Lewis and his attorney both denied he made the calls.
"As God is my witness, those weren't my calls," Lewis said.
Wood also called Lewis' extortion tactics, an elected official "blatantly soliciting a bribe," shameful.
She said she took into consideration the fact that he did not have an extensive criminal record and that he had several letters of recommendation from local citizens, but she added, "Your record does speak for you, and it is not as favorable as you think."
According to court testimony, Lewis was dismissed from the Waynesboro Police Department several years ago for conduct unbecoming of an officer.
In 2010, Lewis settled a suit with a Statesboro Herald newspaper carrier who claimed that Lewis had stolen papers from a box. A Herald circulation employee investigating the thefts spotted Lewis taking papers and followed him through town to Lewis' barber shop.
When the independent carrier filed suit, Lewis met him at the Bulloch County Magistrate Court, where he denied stealing the papers but agreed to pay the carrier $1,000. He left the court and returned with the cash within minutes.
That incident was not mentioned in court Monday.
After Wood handed down the sentence of 15 months to serve, Lewis spoke again in defense of himself.
"I'm tired and weak," he said, admitting that he has an alcohol addiction. He said that he needed the $2,500 he had attempted to extort from Parker to help fix up his sister's house, adding that she has cancer.
It was revealed Monday that Lewis had met with an undercover FBI agent whom he believed to be one of Parker's men to discuss the proposed deal. When he first arrived in court, he told Wood, "I didn't take any money from Parker, but I did take money from the FBI."
Lewis must report to the prison in Jesup within 30 days. Wood warned him that if he does not do so in a timely manner, "It will be the worst mistake you could make."
In addition to 15 months in federal prison, he must complete alcohol abuse counseling and pay $2,500 restitution to the FBI. He also will remain on supervised release for three years after serving his prison term.
Wood also advised Lewis against making any more calls to the Statesboro Herald of such nature as the voicemails heard in court and said that if they did occur, "They will be investigated."
Lewis called the Statesboro Herald minutes after court was adjourned Monday, again denying he made the calls to Soundoff. When asked what he wanted, he told the reporter, "I was gonna make a report, but ... I'll call you back." He made several scattered statements and said that he did not have to testify that the calls were made by him.
As of press time Monday, Lewis had not called the reporter a second time.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.