Columbus Ga. — Business owners whose convenience stores were raided for alleged commercial gambling have made generous campaign contributions to several Columbus officeholders seeking re-election this year.
Investigators last month seized two dozen gaming machines and arrested five people at three stores linked to thousands of dollars backing the re-election bids of District Attorney Julia Slater, Muscogee County Sheriff John T. Darr, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Judge Steven D. Smith among other candidates.
The contributions have raised questions as employees and relatives of campaign supporters -- and at least one contributor himself -- have been ensnared in a broadening Columbus police crackdown on illegal cash payouts from electronic gaming machines. Businesses raided for alleged gambling since 2008 have given at least $28,000 to local candidates over the past four years, including nearly $10,000 to Slater and about $6,000 to Darr, according to an analysis by the Ledger-Enquirer.
The contributions could prove particularly awkward for Slater, who has not disqualified herself from past or current gambling cases involving campaign supporters, and whose office advised police during the most recent investigation, despite what one legal expert suggested is an obvious conflict of interest.
The business owners in question have accounted for some 24 percent of Slater's contributions through June 30, according to disclosures filed with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. One contributor, Viraj K. Shah, who was arrested June 18 at the Steam Mill Food Mart, gave $2,400 apiece to Slater and Darr and made smaller donations to Smith and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who was elected in 2010.
Slater's office over the past week has begun forfeiture proceedings -- seeking cash and gaming machines seized in the raids -- against Viraj Shah and Sawan "Sunny" Shah, a Slater contributor and Democratic donor whose store was raided but wasn't charged criminally.
The officeholders said they had not considered returning any contributions after the gambling raids, noting the defendants haven't been convicted. They insisted they have never given or been asked for preferential treatment in exchange for the contributions.
"A person would have to be awfully bold to ask a law enforcement official or any political official something like that," Countryman said. "That has never happened."
"Sunny has always been responsible about those things," Countryman added, "and he's even told me in conversations that if I'm doing anything illegal, arrest them. He doesn't want to do anything illegal."
Slater said "cases of contributors and non-contributors were treated similarly."
"Every citizen has a right to contribute to the campaigns of the people that they feel would be best in office, and that does not mean that any elected official is giving any kind of preferential treatment to those that donate -- either time or money -- to their campaign," she said.
Viraj Shah's name doesn't always appear on campaign disclosure forms because he made most contributions under his business name, Pearl-Sheel Inc. Other names associated with the convenience stores include Ghotra Inc., which operates the Pyramid Food Mart on Buena Vista Road that was raided in 2009, and Seema Inc., a company name Sunny Shah used for many donations.
The Sunny's Food Mart on Buena Vista also was raided last month, but owner Sunny Shah wasn't charged because police found no evidence he knew that his clerk, Nikunjkumar Patel, allegedly was making cash payouts on the machines. Patel was arrested and charged with commercial gambling.
"In Georgia, when you have a business like that and you have an absent owner of the business, you can't charge them," said Capt. Gil Slouchick of the Columbus Police Department.
Sunny Shah, a naturalized citizen from Mumbai, India, who says he has lived in Columbus about 12 years and owns four convenience stores, has quietly emerged as a prolific supporter of local Democrats.
"He seems to have a real need or desire to be a contributing person as well as a business person and he wants to know about how the government is run here differently from his country," said Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, who added she was shocked to learn one of her supporter's stores had been involved in the raids. "I wouldn't have thought that he would do something that he knew was wrong."
Smith, the Municipal Court judge, said he was introduced to Sunny Shah at Creighton Bishop's re-election kickoff. Smith, who received a $101 contribution from suspect Viraj Shah, said he noticed some gaming machines when Sunny Shah took him around soliciting campaign donations from convenience stores.
"Quite frankly, because of the language barrier, he would introduce me but I don't know if these people are relatives or friends or just people he knows or what the situation is," Smith said. "I don't see the money as tainted. If it was some huge contribution, I guess I'd have to consider that."
Sunny Shah declined to discuss why he supports particular candidates but said, "When I support, I donate from my heart. There is no benefit at all."
Tomlinson, who has Sunny Shah saved in her cell phone as "Sonny the gas station owner," also said he'd never asked for favors. "If he was trying to trade his political contributions, he was doing it poorly," said Tomlinson, who also serves as the city's public safety director. "He didn't stay in touch and never asked for anything."
Included in the newspaper's analysis were contributions made by Shirish Shah, who owns a convenience store on Forrest Road and gave to candidates under the company name KDC Investments Inc. Court records say he was accused last year of making a small cash payout to an undercover agent who played a gaming machine in his store -- a misdemeanor that like the 2009 Pyramid Food Mart case was placed on the court's "dead docket," meaning it was not prosecuted.
Slouchick said the campaign contributions have been "non-remarkable" to investigators in the gambling cases. "Who gives to whose campaign doesn't mean anything to me," he said.
Gaming machines are allowed by law to reward players with free replays and limited merchandise, but not with cash, alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets. Authorities say the machines have become a recipe for abuse and a vehicle for illegal gambling in Columbus and around the state.
Darr said he knew the gaming machines were in Sunny Shah's stores because a group of store owners met with law enforcement officials "to make sure that they were doing things by the law" as the devices were being installed. "It was conveyed to them, and I conveyed to them myself, 'Hey, make sure you don't pay out illegally. Don't pay out in cash,'" said Darr, who said he took a call from Sunny Shah after the raids last month and advised him to hire an attorney.
The sheriff said he didn't take any steps to ensure the store owners' compliance because he received no complaints about the machines. "I just figured if he was doing anything illegal, we would hear about it," Darr said.
Sunny Shah and other convenience store owners held a fund-raising event for Darr and Slater last fall at an Indian restaurant on Auburn Avenue, netting several thousand dollars for both candidates. Darr said those supporters have given to candidates because they're "intrigued by politics."
"I can assure you, regardless of who gives me money -- from $5 to the max -- my ethics is never going to waver," Darr said. "It's not going to affect what I do as the sheriff of Muscogee County."
Countryman said his dealings with Sunny Shah have been limited to a cease and desist letter he sent him in October 2008 after determining he had a gaming machine that "violated Georgia law." Sunny Shah and other business owners whose convenience stores were raided for alleged commercial gambling have supported Countryman as well, giving him at least $5,200 through last month, or about 36 percent of his total contributions, according to the newspaper's analysis.
Despite the contributions, Slater said she hasn't found a conflict in her involvement in the current cases, The forfeiture proceedings her office recently began against contributors Viraj Shah and Sunny Shah involve about $25,000 between the two stores, according to court documents.
"I can absolutely tell you that neither Sunny nor any of these other business owners have ever, ever contacted me even once and said, 'Can you help me out with my case,'" said Slater, who stressed that she has dozens of other supporters. "And that is not something I can say about people in the general public."
Legal experts contacted by the Ledger-Enquirer disagreed on whether the contributions create a conflict of interest for Slater. Bennett L. Gershman, a professor at Pace University School of Law in New York who has written extensively about prosecutorial and judicial ethics, said the contributions present "an impossible situation" for Slater.
"You can't prosecute somebody who at the same time is giving you money because there's always the question of whether you're going to compromise your prosecutorial action out of favoritism to the person or try to show the public that you're not playing favorites and go the other way," said Gershman, a former prosecutor in Manhattan. "In any case, you can't be objective, you can't be impartial and you can't be independent if you're dependent on this person for these types of benefits."
Phyllis Kotey, a retired judge and former prosecutor who teaches at the Florida International University College of Law, said the contributions aren't necessarily problematic if Slater prosecutes the related cases. "It's not like she's letting them off," Kotey said. "The difference would be, well, she's not prosecuting them and they gave her all this money, but if she's still prosecuting them and a jury decides the case and decides whether they're guilty or not, I'm not quite sure where you'd find the potential harm."
Slater's office handled the 2009 Pyramid Food Mart commercial gambling case even though Ghotra Inc. -- listed on some contributions as doing business as Pyramid Food Mart -- had previously given money to Slater's campaign. That case was "dead docketed" shortly after indictment and later dismissed due to a number of factual issues, Slater said. Ghotra Inc. has contributed $1,000 to Slater this election cycle, up from the $200 it gave in 2008 when she unseated former District Attorney Gray Conger.
The 2009 case involved commercial gambling charges against Man Deep Singh and his wife Jaswinder Kavr, who were jailed after police interviewed Pyramid Food Mart customers who claimed gaming machines in the store were dispensing cash vouchers to winning players. (Singh also holds the alcohol license for Lucky Food Mart, the 13th Avenue store raided last month, and shares a Yosemite Drive address with the store's owner, Sukhwinder S. Multani, who is charged with commercial gambling. It wasn't clear whether the men are related; a phone call to their residence wasn't answered.)
In the 2009 bust, Agent Ivan Rome walked into a back room with eight video machines inside the Pyramid Food Store and heard several customers asking which machines were paying off, according to case files obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act. Slater, however, wrote in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer last week that there was "no cash payout on the day in question, no cash payout ever to the officers, no video evidence of any cash payout, and no evidence that the two defendants have ever paid cash to anyone."
Slater, who said the state's commercial gambling statue is "a very difficult law," also referred to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that held the type of gaming machines inside the store were not illegal, meaning prosecutors had no case. She said the prosecutor assigned to the case "would have had no reason to suspect a conflict in this case."
"Had he looked into the conflict issue, he would have found no conflict," Slater said. "Regarding familial relationships between those arrested and contributors, unless someone calls me and tells me their relative has been arrested, I have no way of knowing such a relationship exists. As I have said, I have received no such call on the cases in question."
LaRae Dixon Moore, an assistant district attorney in Slater's office who is running for Superior Court judge, received a $500 contribution from Sunny Shah in April, and said she wouldn't want to be assigned to any case involving his store.
"Just to avoid even any appearance of impropriety, I would not want to be involved in the prosecution of the case involving his store and his employees," Moore said. "I think that would leave open for individuals to question whether or not the case is being handled properly."