Originally published March 16, 2009.
The Muscogee County Junior Marshal Program has been in the spotlight the last three weeks because of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry.
As the GBI looks into whether two family members of U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop — who secured more than $136,000 in federal grants to help fund the program — actually worked there, some Muscogee County residents are wondering what the Junior Marshal Program is and what it does.
The mentoring program, started by Marshal Greg Countryman after his election five years ago, gives boys and girls direction and motivation before they enter high school. It continues to operate in the city’s public middle schools.
Countryman declined numerous interview requests last week to talk in detail about the program, its focus and its employees.
‘Back on track’
The Junior Marshal Program works with seventh- and eighth-graders in most of the 12 Muscogee County School District middle schools. Richards Middle School has opted out of the program the past two years because of scheduling conflicts.
Now headquartered in a $500-per-month rented office at 1300 Wynnton Road, it was moved from the Columbus Government Center because the marshal’s eighth-floor office was too crowded, Countryman said.
Two full-time employees are dedicated to the program. Deputy Wilbert L. Williams, a sworn officer, is the director, and William Mayo, retired from the Army, works with students in the Muscogee County School District middle schools.
Williams is paid from the Marshal’s Office operating budget. Mayo is paid from the Junior Marshal’s Program budget.
“We look for students who need a little help,” Mayo said. “Some may have behavior problems, but we don’t take the real bad kid or the straight-A kid.”
The schools identify 10 students each, five seventh-graders and five eighth-graders. That puts more than 100 kids in the program, which runs on the school-year calendar.
“Sometimes kids just get out of whack, but it doesn’t take a lot to get them back on track,” Mayo said.
A representative from the program goes into each school twice a month and meets with the kids in a group setting. One Saturday a month, all of the kids in the program come together for a program, usually at the Government Center.
“We have judges, leaders in the community talk to them,” Mayo said. “They tell them different things about why leadership and education are important.
After interviewing with the Ledger-Enquirer last week, Mayo said he should not have talked to a reporter because he was on duty. Williams declined an interview request.
Finances for the program are run through the city’s general fund account, but it is funded by a combination of public and private funds.
The program is operating this year under a $111,794 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. It received $24,681 in federal funds for 2007 and no federal money in 2008.
The 2010 federal budget signed by President Barack Obama last week included $75,000 earmarked for the Junior Marshal Program.
All of those earmarks were secured by Rep. Bishop.
“It is one of the most effective and well-received programs in the area and has helped the Muscogee County Marshal’s Office earn national awards and recognition for excellence in law enforcement,” Bishop wrote in a letter to Countryman instructing him to take his stepdaughter off the payroll last month.
“Because of your efforts in this program,” the letter continued, “at-risk youth in Muscogee County, Georgia have positive mentoring in character-building and citizenship, free of alcohol, drugs and crime. Also, they are learning firsthand to admire and respect law enforcement and public safety officers.”
Philosophy and goals
Mayo said the program operates on a philosophy called “CLEFT.” “It stands for citizenship, leadership, education, fun and teamwork,” he said.
Muscogee County School District spokesperson Valerie Fuller said it is a good program for the schools.
“They learn how to conduct themselves as leaders,” Fuller said. “From everything I have heard, it is a beneficial program.”
In a memorandum almost a year ago that established a board of directors for the program, Countryman outlined the following goals:
Ÿ Assist in the development of a unified public safety body to address the needs of our youth.
Ÿ Assist in the establishment of a database to collect and disseminate information to the participating schools.
Ÿ Assist other public safety organizations in developing Junior Public Safety programs.
Ÿ Seek federal, state and local funds as well as corporate funds to finance the Junior Marshal Program.
Muscogee County Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce is the treasurer of the program. Her duties include giving the quarterly financial report because the books are kept by the city’s Finance Department.
She is aware of the GBI inquiry and is “waiting to see how it comes out.”
“I do know the Junior Marshal Program, from what I have seen from Deputy Williams and Mr. Mayo, has done a lot of good work,” Pierce said. “I don’t have any knowledge of what is being investigated.”
A city of Columbus payroll audit last month put the program under intense scrutiny.
Bishop’s stepdaughter, Aayesha Owens Reese, and her husband, Stephen M. Reese, live east of Atlanta in Lithonia, Ga., about 120 miles from Columbus. She works full time for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. He currently works security at Redan High School in Stone Mountain.
But both have worked in the Junior Marshal Program within the past two years while living in Lithonia.
Stephen Reese worked for the Junior Marshal’s Program as an assistant from November 2007 until July 2008.
He was paid $7,275 before taxes during a seven-month period. The money paid to him was direct-deposited into a Columbus Bank and Trust Co. account in the name of Vivian Creighton Bishop, his mother-in-law, Bishop’s wife and the elected Municipal Court Clerk. A canceled check from Creighton Bishop’s CB&T account is on file in the city’s human resources department, city records show. The canceled check was used to start the direct deposit.
Aayesha Reese was paid a gross salary of $7,575 between Oct. 3, 2007, and Feb. 20, 2008. Her job title was listed in city records as administrative assistant, Junior Marshal Program.
The GBI inquiry, which is a preliminary investigation of facts, but not a criminal investigation, is still ongoing, said Rodney Wall, Special Agent in Charge of the Columbus office, on Friday afternoon.