With the former longtime district attorney for Jackson, Banks and Barrow counties serving a six-year prison sentence for stealing taxpayer money, voters have a choice for the top prosecutor job in the Piedmont Judicial Circuit for the first time in more than 25 years.
It’s been that long since Tim Madison was appointed by then-Gov. George Busbee. Madison ran unopposed every four years since.
Madison resigned the office last year and later pleaded guilty to a scheme in which he and another prosecutor conspired to collect a monthly paycheck from the Banks County Commission even though the office was already being paid by the state.
A committee appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue interviewed four people to fill the vacancy on an interim basis before the governor made his pick in September with Rick Bridgeman. Two of the three other lawyers who interviewed for the job are now running against Bridgeman. For the first time in decades, the voters, not the governor, will decide who leads the office that prosecutes felonies in Jackson, Banks and Barrow counties.
With all three candidates running as Republicans, Tuesday’s primary election could decide the district attorney’s race, though there’s a strong likelihood of an August runoff election with three candidates running. Here’s a look at the candidates, in alphabetical order.
Bridgeman took his appointment in September as a mandate for change, and four assistant district attorneys in his staff of 16 prosecutors left within the first two weeks.
He instituted a policy of public reports and town hall-style meetings, and, he said, cleared a backlog of nearly 3,000 cases that had been sitting dormant without an accusation or indictment in more than a year under Madison’s administration.
Bridgeman touts his experience as a "career prosecutor," who started out as an investigator in the DeKalb County solicitor’s office before going to work for Madison as an assistant district attorney in 1995. He left Madison’s employ in 1999, Bridgeman said, "because I saw he lost his moral compass."
Besides stealing tax dollars, a GBI investigation found that Madison held questionable "team-building" recreational activities, many of which were mandatory for his assistants. Madison was never charged with a crime for those junkets.
"He began coming in and asking employees to play volleyball in the middle of the work day," Bridgeman recalled. "I didn’t want to participate in those things, and I got called out on the carpet for it. I certainly didn’t think they were crimes, but I didn’t think it was the right thing to do."
Bridgeman next spent time prosecuting felony cases for district attorneys Bob Lavender and Mike Crawford in the Northern and Mountain judicial circuits before he was tabbed to fill the Piedmont vacancy.
"I’ve seen how different court systems operate," Bridgeman said. "I’ve seen how to address the challenges of a county with a very large caseload. And so that has allowed me some
perspective in an ability to approach issues in an effective way."
Bridgeman said the office has made "giant leaps forward" in the 10 months he’s been there, from moving cases along faster to better addressing the needs of crime victims.
"We’ve done a lot in 10 months but we’ve still got a long way to go," Bridgeman said. "And I hope we’ll have the opportunity to continue the forward progress we’ve made."
Sikes, a native of Jackson County, touts her deep roots in the community, lack of connections to the Tim Madison administration, and slightly longer experience as a lawyer. She’s been a member of the bar since 1991, though she has never prosecuted, only defended, criminal cases.
Giving back to the community and instilling a trust in the judicial system is what prompted her to run, she said.
"You feel close to the people here because you grew up here and your friends and neighbors are here," she said. "It makes you want to represent them."
Sikes said the Madison episode "undermined people’s trust in the office so much. I feel we need someone in there from the area who people know and know to be trustworthy."
Sikes said she’s represented thousands of clients in all three counties of the Piedmont circuit, and that her "well-rounded" legal experience as a general practitioner gives her perspectives of the justice system beyond that of her two opponents, both of whom are career prosecutors.
"Having been a defense attorney, I can look at a case from that perspective and understand the strategies they use when representing clients," Sikes said.
Sikes said her opponents’ connection to Madison never involved anything criminal, but she faults them for not reporting what she believed was "a huge misuse of public funds."
"It’s just a matter of ethics," she said.
Like her opponents, Sikes lists growth as the top issue for the office.
"We’re going to have an increase in crime, because growth just brings that increase," she said. "I would like to see the District Attorney’s office work very closely with law enforcement. No one agency is going to be able to deal with this. It’s going to take everybody working together."
Sikes believes more can be done for victims of crime through the office’s victim assistance program, including funds for counseling and medical bills.
Sikes said the best part of her campaign "is getting out and talking to people and listening to what their concerns are — and I want to continue to do that when I’m elected."
Smith, though the youngest candidate, has the most experience prosecuting cases in the Piedmont Circuit, including several high-profile murder cases.
He says he’s running on his reputation.
"All I’ve ever wanted to be is a prosecutor and serve my community," Smith said. "This is my home and it’s where I’ve served for over 11 years. We stayed in the Piedmont circuit because it was important to me to be a part of this community."
Smith resigned as an assistant district attorney a few weeks after Bridgeman took office last September.
"I did not like the way things were handled, where other people were asked to resign," Smith said. "I did not think I could work for Mr. Bridgeman, and at the time I was thinking of running against him."
Smith said he has experience as a manager, serving as a chief assistant district attorney and running the Jackson County office of the circuit for five years. He said he prosecuted more murder cases than any other assistant district attorney in the circuit and acted as the "second chair" prosecutor to Madison in several death penalty cases.
Smith reiterates that the GBI and state Attorney General’s office found that only Madison, Madison’s wife and a Banks County prosecutor knew of the scheme to steal taxpayer funds.
"They found all of the (other) employees had no criminal involvement and no knowledge of any criminal involvement," Smith said. He noted that Madison was charged only with the crime of theft, and nothing related to the mandatory employee outings resulted in criminal charges.
Smith said of the staff of 30-plus now working under Bridgeman, "I think it’s a wonderful staff."
He said turnover was a problem under Madison because of his managerial style, but touts his own reputation for being able to work well with people.
Like Bridgeman, Smith said if elected DA, he would take a lead role in the major cases.
"I’m foremost a trial attorney," he said. "What I love most is being in the courtroom. So yes, I plan on being in the courtroom a lot."