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Editorial: Candidates who break the law deserve more than a slap on the wrist
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Former gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams leaves Hall County Jail after turning himself in Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018 on charges of insurance fraud and false report of a crime. - photo by Austin Steele

It isn’t enough.

Former gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams last week accepted a plea deal under the state’s First Offender Act that will see him serve four years on probation for insurance fraud and lying to investigators, after which his criminal record will be expunged and he will be exonerated as far as the state’s judicial system is concerned.

It’s hard to see that as justice being served.

We all remember Williams, the outspoken outsider in last year’s governor’s race who tried to make a name for himself by riding the coattails of President Donald Trump.

It was Williams who rode his “deportation bus” around the state, promising to round up “illegals” and haul them out of the country; Williams who held a raffle to give away a “bump stock” gun accessory right after that device had been used to kill more than 50 people at a concert in Las Vegas; Williams who posed for a photo with a heavily armed “militia group” at a rally protesting Islamic law.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

And it was Williams who law enforcement officials say falsely reported that computer servers valued at more than $300,000 were stolen from his business in Gainesville.

As a result of his plea bargain, we may never know exactly how or why the scheme to report the computers as stolen was hatched, and whether it solely was meant to illegally gain an insurance payoff, or if there was hope that some element of political sympathy might attach itself to the report, which was made just a couple of weeks prior to last year’s primary.

What we can assume, however, is that the former candidate willfully and intentionally did as he was accused, otherwise we feel certain that a man who professed to have such high moral character would have fought to prove his innocence in court. After all, his campaign manager said the indictment and subsequent arrest of Williams was nothing more than a “political witch hunt.”

Williams’ total sentence under his First Offender plea is four years of probation, a fine of $5,000, and 120 hours of community service. Somehow we don’t think that $5,000 fine will come close to offsetting the expense of law enforcement officials investigating for months a crime supposedly committed against someone who was running for governor.

In campaign materials during the gubernatorial race, Williams bragged that he was “the only candidate for governor self-funding and not accepting lobbyist money.” Apparently devising a scheme to get insurance money had more appeal that securing lobbyists funding.

Throughout the campaign Williams railed against “illegals” in our midst and made returning undocumented immigrants to Mexico a major plank of his political platform. Do you think there is a chance he would have offered to any of them a deal as good as that he received under the First Offender Act?

Georgia’s First Offender Act was not meant for hypocrites like Michael Williams, but having reached an agreement with the district attorney and judge, he is able to take advantage of the law.

Entering a plea under the FOA is an option available to those accused of certain non-violent crimes who have not previously been convicted of a felony. There are certainly cases in which its use is warranted, reasonable and justified. There are cases in which a plea under the FOA truly does represent an appropriate application of justice.

We just don’t think it should apply to political conmen serving in, or seeking, elective office.

Not everyone is eligible for sentencing under the FOA. The law exempts from its application those accused of a variety of crimes, ranging from sexual offenses to elder abuse and assaulting a law enforcement officer.

We would like to see those exemptions expanded to include those who commit serious crimes while serving in public office. At the time of his false report of a crime, Williams was a member of the Georgia Senate, having served a Forsyth County district for two terms before deciding to run for governor.

But since expanding the FOA exemptions to include public officials would require action by those same officials, we won’t be expecting such a change anytime soon.

We see nothing wrong with holding those elected to positions of public trust to a higher standard of behavior. As such, they should not be allowed to agree to FOA sentencing and the post-probation cleansing of judicial records.

Williams’ attempt to defraud his insurance company apparently failed, but he defrauded the people of the state of Georgia nonetheless. For that he deserves more than a judicial slap on the wrist.

Lest we forget, it was Williams who made “Dog the Bounty Hunter” a part of his gubernatorial campaign. We can only hope that if the former candidate violates probation and becomes a fugitive, Dog will still know where to find him.

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