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SDTF In Jeopardy After Agent Publicly Resigns

Employee Furloughs Part of Upcoming Budget

Luke Roberts

Star Editor 

The Ocilla Mayor and City Council held a public hearing as part of the approval process for the FY 2023-24 budget on Thursday evening, June 29, followed by a called meeting.  Tension ran high in both proceedings, as city employees voiced concerns about furlough days in the city’s proposed budget. Things only escalated during the called meeting as the council continued recent discussion into the South Central Drug Task Force (SCDTF), crescendoing when SCDTF Captain Chip Bowen announced his resignation from the agency.  

After the public questioning of SCDTF agents Sean Fitzgerald and Bowen during a meeting earlier this month on June 6, Ocilla Mayor Horace Hudgins placed Ben Hill County Sheriff Lee Cone on the agenda.  Armed with a folder containing dozens upon dozens of documents, Sheriff Cone proceeded to speak about cases involving the SCDTF agents, as well as the relationship between his staff and the SCDTF agents.  He also expressed his disappointment in comments made about members of his staff during a previous city meeting.  Many in the audience, and some on the council, expressed confusion as to exactly what Sheriff Cone was presenting at various times during what was a lengthy presentation.                 

Sheriff Cone, who did accuse one of the SCDTF agents of committing a crime {perjury) despite possessing documentation refuting his claim, concluded by urging the mayor and council to “look into the documents” regarding a particular case involving the SCDTF agents.  However, when city council member Claire Clayton Stone expressed her desire and willingness to review the documents, Cone declined to provide said documents and instead recommended the city obtain the documents via an open records request.  

Shortly thereafter, SCDTF Captain Chip Bowen, who makes up one-half of the local drug task force, announced his resignation and cited a number of reasons for doing so, including having his certification “threatened” by Sheriff Cone, and being “publicly belittled” at a previous city meeting.  

Bowen also said “it has become obvious” that he is “not respected, nor wanted by the current administration.” 

Sources tell The Star that Bowen’s departure, coupled with what was described by some as “unnecessary but clearly intentional meddling” by some at the city puts the future of the near-entirely federally grant-funded SCDTF in jeopardy. 

Bowen stated, “Since July of 2019 I have served the city of Ocilla with dignity, pride, and integrity. In a little more than four years of service I have sworn to 245 arrest warrants, executed approximately 100 search warrants, and personally arrested 94 drug offenders in Ocilla and Irwin County, while assisting in approximately as many arrests.

“I have seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of illegal poison that fills the streets in our communities. I have also seized illegally obtained property and funds in such great amount that the SCDTF vehicle I currently drive was paid for in cash with not one single tax dollar spent. When I began at the SCDTF our financial situation was critical, but as of today we currently are self-sufficient financially and have enough funds to buy any piece of equipment we need at no cost to the taxpayers, and not one dollar of said money comes from the grant. Those funds have been earned by the current SCDTF Agents alone. Not to mention the approximately 200 illegally possessed firearms I have taken out of the hands of offenders and convicted felons. 

“To this point in my narcotics career, I have yet to lose a single case in court for any reason, and I have been involved in the three largest narcotics seizures in the history of Irwin County along with my partner Sean Fitzgerald.  

“I have been able to accomplish all of the above without ever being reprimanded by my superiors in any way. I have never been alleged [to have committed] any crimes, excessive force complaints, or wrongdoing. I have done my absolute best to serve with equality in mind, for I believe that the law reads black and white with no gray area. 

“Now, however, I have recently had my certification threatened by a Sheriff of another county, who I once had great respect for. I have been publicly belittled in front of the City council and local taxpayers by a man [Joe Saxon of the City of Ocilla] that has no direct authority over me or the SCDTF. I have had my integrity and capabilities questioned by people who have known friendships with repeat drug offenders, and all the while I have simply continued to work, keep my head down, and serve to the best of my ability. 

“With all of that said it is with great sadness that I announce my two weeks’ notice of resignation from the SCDTF. It has become very obvious that despite my endless efforts, I simply am not respected, nor wanted by the current City administration. Any person that sat through the City Council meeting on June 6, 2023, can attest that for an hour I was essentially put on trial on matters that had already been discussed in appropriate settings prior to that date. 

“It has become clear that the problem here is not with the SCDTF itself, but rather a personal issue with me as a person and employee. Therefore, I will hold my head high and know that I served this community with the utmost dignity while upholding my oath to the fullest.” 

Many in attendance joined together in ovation as Bowen turned and exited the meeting room.  

His wife, Cady Giddens Bowen, looked directly as Joe Saxon, City of Ocilla Director of Standards & Compliance, and asked if he was “happy” with what had transpired before directing her attention to Mayor Hudgins and asking him the same question.  

Neither Saxon or Hudgins responded. 

Bowen’s announcement spurred comments from several citizens, including Scott Carver, Chairman of the Irwin County Commission. Members of the commission have voiced support for the SCDTF and opposition to the city’s recent dealings with the SCDTF.  

A visibly angry Carver addressed the mayor and council with a brief statement, “Mayor, y’all just let one heck of an agent walk out the door.” 

Carver provided The Star with a lengthy statement the morning after the meeting that addresses the city’s prior “demands” made to the SCDTF (some of which he called “frivolous”) via the now infamous letter the city presented to the SCDTF, the idea to look into possible consolidation of some city and county services, and the city’s ISO fire rating, which recently worsened and led to the increase in insurance costs for many residents. 

Carver’s full statement is featured in its entirety later in this article.    

Ashton Harper, who has worked closely with the SCDTF agents in recent months, questioned what he perceives as the mayor and council’s “lack of support” for the SCDTF agents. Harper praised both drug agents, Fitzgerald and Bowen, for their “dedication” to their craft and also spoke of the high level of “integrity” they bring to the job.  He also cited his fear for local residents, citing an increase in drug and gang activity and violent crime, should the SCDTF cease to exist. 

Irwin County High School Principal Jared Luke, who has seen firsthand the negative effects drugs and gangs can have on local youth, piggybacked off what Harper said and stated, “Mayor, all I know is y’all better have a plan.”   

Several council members, including Lisa Cook, Patrice Y.W. Manley, and Lemora Moses, all said they support the SCDTF, and that they “never wanted or even considered” doing away with the SCDTF, despite the letter the city presented to the SCDTF that specifically states is to “inform you [the SCDTF] of our pending consideration to withdraw from the SCDTF.”   

Cook added that her “concern” regarding the SCDTF was related to “language in the grant itself,” a concern that Cook had referenced in a previous meeting.  

Knowing the “concerns” Cook expressed had been addressed, Star Editor Luke Roberts asked Saxon and County Chairman Carver if it was true that the issues with the grant had been addressed and if the city and county will be in compliance with the language in the grant as it’s currently constituted.  Both Saxon and Carver affirmed what Roberts asked. 

Roberts also asked if the letter the city council officially voted on and approved for the letter to be presented to the SCDTF.  Multiple city officials confirmed that the council did not vote and approve for the submission of the letter to the SCDTF, though they were all aware of the letter. 

It should also be noted that the Governing Board of the SCDTF (the mayor, city police chief, county chairman, and sheriff) has met illegally for several years, as no one from the Board has publicly announced and/or posted the Board’s meeting dates, times, and agendas, clear violations of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act. 

Roberts also asked if it was “appropriate” for a “high-ranking city official” to contact the District Attorney’s Office regarding a plea deal offered to a local man who was arrested by the SCDTF on drug charges.  

The “high-ranking city official” referenced is Mayor Hudgins.  Multiple sources have confirmed that Hudgins contacted the Tift County Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office and asked about a plea deal the office had offered to Jarvis “Pecan” Foster, who the SCDTF arrested for allegedly selling crack cocaine. Sources said that though Hudgins didn’t ask for any “favors,” he did say that he felt the 10-year prison sentence was too lengthy since Foster “does a lot of good in the community.” 

Hudgins, nor anyone else with the city, did not offer comment on the topic. 

City officials offered no statement on the SCDTF after the public comments portion of the meeting. 

The mayor and council entered into an executive session to discuss personnel before exiting and adjourning the meeting.  

The Ocilla Mayor and Council will meet again on Thursday, July 6, at 6:00pm to approve the FY 2023-24 budget. 

Irwin County Commission Chairman Scott Carver’s statement to The Star reads, “I have not spoken with the other commissioners about last night’s meeting so I want to make this clear, these are my feelings and not a representation of the board’s views. I can say with complete confidence that the commission supports the SCDTF and its agents but I would not want my personal views to be seen as theirs. 

“What happened at last night’s council meeting sadly was not a shock to me. The mayor has verbally said he supports the SCDTF but his actions are not consistent with that statement. In a recent called meeting of the SCDTF governing board, the county’s representatives (the Sheriff and myself) were blindsided. We were advised that a meeting was called for the following day. When the Sheriff asked what the meeting was for, he was told something to the effect of ‘you’ll find out tomorrow.’  

“This is not the first time something like this has happened. The Sheriff and I hold roles equal to the Mayor and Police Chief on the SCDTF governing board. There’s no reason that a meeting should be called where the members of the board can not be advised as to the purpose of the meeting. Aside from issues to be discussed in executive session, the sunshine law states that the meeting should be announced to the public and an agenda is to be posted no later than 24 hours before the meeting. Therefore, even the public should be advised of the meeting and its agenda. 

“At that meeting we were presented with a document on City of Ocilla letterhead that states: ‘I’m writing to inform you of our pending consideration to withdraw from the SCDTF as of July 1st, 2023. The City of Ocilla has several concerns in reference to the overall operation of the task force.  The City of Ocilla would like to provide the task force with an opportunity to address and satisfy the following concerns” (NOTE: Carver’s response and explanations to the city’s concerns are italicized below): 

  1. Policy: review, modify, and have the Governing Board adopt modified policy.  (This was an issue that had been previously discussed.  Neither of the DTF agents had any issue with complying with this demand.  However, you have two guys working drugs.  They’re already overwhelmed and between the two of them have over 1,000 hours of comp time that they have not used due to their dedication to their job.  Drug dealers don’t punch a time clock.  These guys work around the clock so asking them to develop a new policy while continuing to do their job is not rational.  It was mentioned that the DTF could adopt the City of Ocilla’s policy and no objection was made to this so this was a frivolous demand.)
  2. Training: enroll in the basic drug investigators course (40 hours) and complete at least an additional of 40 hours of specific drug training each following year.  (To my knowledge, Major Rogers with the Irwin Co. Sheriff’s Office had already scheduled the agents to attend this course. So another frivolous demand.)
  3. Agreement: After discussing the proposed agreement for 2024 with members of the city council, we are not in agreement with the proposed agreement for 2024.  We have decided we would agree with the following agencies and the following cash matches:
    1. Irwin Co. $15,000
    2. City of Ocilla $10,000
    3. Turner Co. $15,000
    4. City of Ashburn $10,000  
  4. Furthermore, as per the current agreement each member of the task force must pass a GBI Polygraph and background examination. (This was an irrational ultimatum. Joe Saxon is the former County Manager for Turner Co. and has stated multiple times that both Turner and Ashburn were in financial strains and would not contribute. So this was seen by myself and the DTF agents as an unreasonable demand to which the Mayor and Joe Saxon knew could not be met.  As for the Polygraph, on what grounds?  Neither agent is under investigation and furthermore, Polygraphs are not admissible in court so what is the use.  The agents felt attacked by this demand, as would I.  Also, there were multiple discussions about having Coffee and Turner sign on as non contributing members, something both sheriffs had reportedly agreed to, with the understanding that the only service they would receive was mutual aid.  Mutual aid is currently provided with no agreement which is customary for most Fire, EMS, and Law Enforcement in neighboring communities). 
  5. Evidence: The city wanted an audit done of the entire SCDTF evidence vault. (This is a reasonable demand.  This should have been done when the previous Commander resigned and Commander Fitzgerald was promoted to establish accuracy before Commander Fitzgerald accepted responsibility for previously acquired evidence.  I think it’s important to note that in small communities, there is a lack of trained individuals to accept open positions such as this.  Therefore, people are promoted into positions they are not totally prepared for and are required to learn on the job.  This is true in almost every department.  No one with SCDTF objected to an audit.  However, asking that such a task be performed in the short timeframe while also working active cases was not realistic.  Also note that CJCC requires an annual audit of the SCDTF evidence vault and that audit is performed by a retired, non affiliated GBI agent.  That audit was current.) 
  6. Notification: Prior to contacting an outside agency on any matters other than routine drug enforcement investigation, the commander must present the situation to the operation control group chairman who shall call for a meeting of the operation control group. (No one objected to this demand.)

The letter concludes, “The City of Ocilla requests that each of these concerns be addressed and satisfied by June 30th, 2023. If the city decides these concerns have not been satisfied, our last day as a member of the SCDTF will be June 30th, 2023.” 

Carver continued, “Last [Thursday] night Agent Bowen chose to resign.  As I stated in the meeting, we lost one heck of an agent. I’ve learned in politics not to stick your neck out for anyone but I’ll make an exception for Chip Bowen. I’ve never met a man with more integrity, work ethic, determination, or love for his family and community than Chip Bowen. If that statement, this letter, or my actions last night cost me my office, I’ll walk away with my head held high knowing I did what I felt was right. While I wish Agent Bowen would reconsider, I completely understand his decision. I don’t know of anyone who would want to put their life on the line daily when they feel that their leadership consistently attacks and berates them and welcomes someone from another community to do the same in a public forum. 

“During my term I’ve tried to work with the city’s current leadership to become a more efficient government and better serve our community.  Irwin County and the City of Ocilla have both struggled with budget issues due to a lack of adequate revenue.  This is no one person’s fault. It’s an issue that plagues most small communities. I was recently at the Rural Development Institute with city leaders where a presenter mentioned Pulaski County and their efforts to make their city and county governments more efficient. I reached out to their commissioner. They’ve combined city/county law enforcement and city/county fire services which has reduced the tax burden on their residents and improved services. 

“I’ve asked the Mayor and Joe Saxon to explore this as well as other areas on multiple occasions. Note, I’m not saying it’s the right course of action.  We won’t know that until we have the conversation and explore the pros and cons.  Beyond lip service, there’s been little to no effort from the city’s leadership to explore this.  Currently the city is admittedly struggling financially as stated in last [Thursday] night’s meeting. 

“Their ISO rating(Insurance Services Office Fire Rating), which drastically affects city residents’ insurance rates, has gone from a 5 to a 7 on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being best and 10 being worst.  My understanding is that the city received a 7 only because the county covers the entire city and the county’s rating is a 7.  Therefore the city could not go above a 7.  Even with this information, a serious discussion has not been had.

“Please note that I don’t think the issues we’re facing are a result of the City Council’s views. I truly feel that if the Council was provided accurate information, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

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