Defense drops gag order request, gets preliminary hearing

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerOctober 2, 2010 

A motion for a gag order to muzzle principals and witnesses in the criminal case against former Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Tony Adams and two others was abandoned in a Friday morning hearing before Muscogee Superior Court Chief Judge John Allen.

But defense attorneys immediately launched a new motion, asking Allen to hold a preliminary hearing their clients had waived upon being granted bond following their Aug. 24 arrests.

This chance to “clear up a lot of issues” in advance of possible indictments in the case could go a long way toward preventing further damage to the reputations of their clients, who have been vilified in public chambers and in the news media, argued Atlanta Attorney Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas, representing Adams, and former Columbus prosecutor Stacey Jackson and Atlanta attorney Manny Arora, representing recreation specialist Herman Porter.

Although Chief Assistant District Attorney Alonza Whitaker argued the granting of a preliminary hearing at this stage in the process would be “setting a bad precedent,” Allen sided with the defense request, ordering a preliminary hearing to be held at 9 a.m. Oct. 15.

At that hearing, the prosecution will present evidence — as little or as much as it deems needed — to convince the court there is probable cause to proceed with the felony cases against Adams and Porter.

Allen warned that the hearing will be “very strictly controlled” and that, from this point forward, he expects all attorneys in the case to adhere strictly to the canons of ethics regarding public comments concerning the case, even though he is not imposing a gag order.

“I’m well aware of the circus atmosphere that has been played out in this case,” Allen said, following complaints from defense attorneys that their clients have been adversely affected by months of news reports and by the televised firing of Adams by Columbus Council less than 72 hours before Friday’s hearing.

Adams, Porter and William Fox, director of East Marietta Basketball Inc., were arrested on charges of misappropriation of more than $200,000 involved in the Nike-sponsored Georgia Blazers, an elite travel basketball team operated by the city and formerly coached by Adams.

Although former Columbus Mayor Frank Martin attended the hearing as Fox’s lawyer, he did not join in the motion for a preliminary hearing and made no arguments during the 90-minute session.

After the hearing, in a conversation with the other defense attorneys, Martin likened his client’s position in the case to that of “a piano player in a whorehouse” who happened to be arrested when police raided the brothel.

Whitaker’s opposition to the preliminary hearing centered on the precedent it sets for other offenders who opt for immediate bond upon arrest, which requires a defendant to waive the commitment or preliminary hearing the state requires be afforded within 48-72 hours of a person being jailed. The defense attorneys did not follow procedures that would have preserved their right to such a hearing and to grant one now would open the door for a flood of like requests from other defendants who made bond but have not been indicted, he said.

“What they’re really asking for is a ‘mini-trial,’” the prosecutor said.

Whitaker assured Allen prosecutors would seek an indictment in the case within 60-75 days.

Arora, who has represented high-profile professional athletes as an attorney and agent, cited law that grants a court discretion in holding a preliminary hearing in cases, even after defendants have posted bond and are free while awaiting indictment.

“A preliminary hearing would clear up a lot of issues,” Arora said, including whether the contract signed by Adams on behalf of the city-sponsored Georgia Blazers elite basketball team was a criminal act.

If left to prosecutors, whom cynics have said could influence grand juries to indict a ham sandwich, the issue of criminality would have to await a long delay to reach a trial that possibly could even be avoided, the Atlanta attorney argued. That would subject the defendants to continued damage to their reputations, and to a possible indictment that, even if acquitted at trial, could never be expunged from their record, he said.

“You’re our last hope to avoid getting into an indictment situation and having their reputations ruined for the rest of their lives,” Arora told Allen.

Thomas said a preliminary hearing gives Adams a chance to have his accusers “tell the man to his face” what it is they say he has done wrong.

Jackson said Porter, who has been suspended without pay, is damaged every day that goes by without resolution of the case. He has no income and, because he’s been arrested on a felony charge, cannot get another job.

Before he ruled, Allen noted that he has always found it an “onerous” circumstance that a person must give up his right to a preliminary hearing in order to avoid staying in jail. “But that’s the law,” he said.

In granting the preliminary hearing, Allen also noted that the prosecution may present as little evidence as it desires, or as much as it desires. He also observed that even if he ruled that some of the evidence did not rise to a criminal act, that would not prevent prosecutors from seeking and obtaining an indictment.

Adams was not present for the hearing. He was fired from his post Tuesday evening by a 6-3 vote of Columbus Council for not being completely truthful when administratively questioned about signing the Blazers contract.

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