Authorities investigating a culture of corruption in Talbot County law enforcement paid several bribes to Herman Howard, the sheriff who died unexpectedly last year, an FBI agent testified this morning.
"He was not prosecuted because of his death," said agent Gordon Hurley.
Howard died of a massive heart attack in March, about three months before state and federal agents descended upon Talbotton, Ga., and arrested several lawmen who have since admitted to taking bribes from undercover agents they perceived to be drug dealers.
Hurley's testimony came during a hearing for one of two former sheriff's officials, both of whom were sentenced this morning to nearly three-and-a-half years in federal prison.
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"The law enforcement culture in Talbot County has been corrupted for quite a while," acknowledged defense attorney Bill Mason, who sought to differentiate the "extreme cooperation" of his client, Jeff P. Sivell, from others charged in the sting. Sivell, Mason said, gave a full statement to the feds, "told them things they didn't know," and testified before a grand jury.
Like his co-defendant, Alvin K. Malone, Sivell told U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land he was susceptible to corruption because of unmitigated financial problems. "I made a stupid decision," said Sivell, who was ordered to pay about $5,000 in restitution.
Agents said Malone had cooperated with the investigation as well, but he, too, was sentenced to 41 months and ordered to pay some $8,000 restitution.
"This is only a one-time deal with me," Malone told the judge. "Ain't nothing like this ever going to happen again."
According to plea agreements, investigators began planning sting operations as early as 2009 after receiving tips from at least one confidential informant. An informant told agents he had paid Malone a $1,700 bribe to drop drug charges he was preparing to file against him.
Cooperating with agents, that source later told Malone a drug dealer would be traveling through Talbot County with $15,000 in cash to buy half a kilogram of cocaine. The informant suggested Malone pull the vehicle over and seize the money.
Malone did this, according to prosecutors, and told the drug dealer -- who was actually an undercover agent -- to “stay out of Talbot County.” Malone never filed any charges or reports and later split the cash with the informant.
A similar plot unfolded in Sivell’s case. Prosecutors said he discussed robbing drug dealers in 2008 with a confidential source who was being held in the Talbot County Jail. “Just call me," Sivell told the source at the time. "I’ll be ready.”
Prosecutors said the agents’ sting was executed as planned, with Sivell seizing $10,000 from a suspected drug dealer and splitting the cash with the informant.
Also charged in the corruption sting was Charlie Stephens, a former part-time deputy who has admitted he arranged to seize $8,000 during a traffic stop and split it with a man who told him he was transporting the cash for a drug deal. Howard's son, former Talbotton police chief Michael Howard, pleaded guilty last month to lying to agents during the investigation.
He's scheduled to be sentenced May 1, while Stephens' sentencing is set for April 10.