“Lex et Justitia.” — Translated it means “Law and Justice.”
Those three Latin words, meaning “Law and Justice,” are etched in gold above the bench and jump out as you enter U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land’s second-floor courtroom in downtown Columbus.
Some would argue that on the morning of Jan. 26, Muscogee County Sheriff John T. Darr walked into that courtroom and made an error in judgment, confusing his role in law and justice. Darr, the county’s top law enforcement officer, asked Land to show mercy on Sawan “Sonny” Shah, a local businessman who owns a string of convenience stores and had just pleaded guilty to his role in a $24 million criminal conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
Many were surprised Darr would speak in such a public manner for a felon. But Shah was a campaign contributor and friend, and Darr felt compelled to stand in front of the court after also writing a letter in support of Shah.
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One of those astounded by Darr’s action was Donna Tompkins, then a captain in the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office.
“That was the day I decided to run,” Tompkins said in a recent interview. “The day that came out on the front page of the Ledger-Enquirer, my phone blew up. It was people in our department and other departments who said, ‘What the hell is your boss doing?’ All I could say is, ‘I don’t know.’”
Tompkins, with more than 30 years’ experience in the sheriff’s office, resigned her job less than two months later and set out to unseat her boss, who had been in the job since his unlikely victory in 2008. She did just that on Dec. 6, narrowly defeating Darr in a runoff, with 51.67 percent of the more than 12,400 votes cast.
A number of issues factored into the defeat, including Darr’s continuing Superior Court suit against the city over the funding of the sheriff’s office and a string of administrative problems.
For some people, standing up for Shah in federal court became the central issue, Darr admitted in an interview last week.
“I don’t want to say it was naive, but it was a misjudgment on my part, and it played out in the campaign,” Darr said.
If Darr won’t call it naive, Tompkins certainly will.
“This is my estimation —and perhaps it’s unkind — but one of two things: either you are incredibly naive, in which case I am not sure you should be the sheriff, or there is something more to that story,” she said. “Either way it is not good.”
Darr still defends his decision to speak up for Shah, who was involved in cashing 567 fake income tax refund checks during 2013 and 2014. The checks totaled more than $1.3 million according to facts presented in the sentencing. In addition to the prison time, Land sentenced Shah to 21 months in federal prison and ordered him to pay full restitution.
Land, at the time of the sentencing, made it clear he was troubled by what Shah did.
“Doing something 567 times does not suggest it was a mistake,” the judge said. “It suggests it would have continued if he was not arrested.”
Darr and Shah’s father were the only two who addressed the court before Land passed down the sentence.
“I never conveyed this well, but I did want the guy to be held accountable,” Darr said. “He should be held accountable. What I was doing was (proposing) instead of federal prison give this guy alternative, pay restitution and community service instead of incarcerating him at federal expense. At the end of the day, you ask if I think that played a part in this. Yes, sir, I do.”
Tompkins argues that when Darr spoke on Shah’s behalf and later tried to explain his decision in a memo to the sheriff’s office staff, he was not thinking about the impact it would have on the department or the community.
“I say, ‘You should have thought that through a little better,’” she said. “Then he came back and said, ‘I had only seen the light in him and people are going to use this for political reasons.’ I thought, ‘Everything else you might could argue — you might could argue about the budget or you might could argue about the lawsuit. You can’t argue this one. This was all you, all the way. And you made this decision.’”
Tompkins wasn’t the only one to question Darr’s judgment that day. Randy Robertson, who retired as a major in the Sheriff’s Office in October 2014, was a key member of Darr’s command staff for almost seven years.
“My first reaction was I was extremely disappointed and glad I had retired,” said Robertson, now the president of the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police chapter. “... It broke my heart that he did that.”
Robertson said his reaction was not unique in the law enforcement community and he expressed his concerns to Darr at the time.
“As a law enforcement officer with the microscope that law enforcement throughout this country is being placed under, I could never quite understand why a law enforcement officer would stand up for someone who had been thoroughly investigated, tried and convicted by the criminal justice system,” Robertson said. “To go in there and say that this individual was a good person or good community leader flew in the face of everything that I held as important with my personal idea of my character.”
Those inside the law enforcement community were the ones with the deepest feelings about the Shah situation, Tompkins said.
“They get it more than the average citizen gets it,” Tompkins said. “If you are not an insider, it just looks like he went out and supported a friend. But those of us who were closer — when you realize this was one of the Top 10 cases worked by the IRS, when you realize the Columbus Police Department worked a case on Sonny Shah for two years prior to this, when you realize that the FBI, IRS and name another lettered agency had some hand in this case — then for the chief law enforcement officer of this county to get on the stand and say, ‘He’s a nice guy; he probably doesn’t need to go to jail ... .”
Asked if the defense of Shah played a role in the outcome of the race, Robertson was clear.
“If we are looking at 400 votes, and we are, I have no doubt it did,” he said.
Similar paths, same outcome
If you look at the road Darr took to the office in 2008 and the one Tompkins took this year, there are several parallels. The most obvious is they were both longtime Sheriff’s Office employees who resigned and challenged the boss at the ballot box.
Both ran as Democrats and defeated two-term incumbents running as independents. And they were both long shots in the beginning.
“It was a leap of faith,” Tompkins said.
A jump that Darr understood, all too well.
“When I did it, there was nobody saying, ‘I am going to do this for you, John,’” Darr said. “No doubt, she took a leap of faith. You have to give up a lot to run — and you risk a lot. When you have a built-in support base, that is a lot easier than going into a race where you know you don’t have to put a lot of stuff in place.”
Darr had a lot of support from within the sheriff’s office in 2008, but he also had political tailwinds created by Barack Obama’s historic bid for president and community concern about the way then-Sheriff Ralph Johnson had handled the shooting death of Kenneth Walker in 2003 by a sheriff’s deputy.
“When I first heard he was running, I didn’t think he would have a chance,” Robertson said of Darr. “I thought it would be interesting, because there was a certain segment of the community that would vote for anybody other than the incumbent. The thing that helped John, along with the people in the community that had an issue with Sheriff Johnson, was there was a big Democratic push to elect Barack Obama. He rode that wave.”
If Darr rode a wave to the office, Tompkins stayed afloat in the choppiest of waters. Darr abandoned his Democratic roots and declared as an independent. Two black Democrats — former sheriff’s office employee Pam Brown and Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office investigator Robert Smith — entered the race against Tompkins.
Brown, who came less than 100 votes from upending Darr in the 2012 Democratic primary, and Smith were both disqualified by the election’s board for paperwork issues in qualifying. Those disqualifications were upheld in Superior Court.
That left Tompkins alone in the May Democratic primary, though Brown’s name was on the ballot because it was printed before the disqualification cleared the courts. Though it was a moot point, Brown got more votes than Tompkins.
“I get it,” Tompkins said of that primary vote. “I think a lot of people in the community think that Pam had come so very close last time and they really wanted to show their support for her. If you think about it, I look at it as divine providence. I shouldn’t be here, but I am still here. And I believe there was a reason for that. It confirmed for me I was on the right path.”
That set up the the November General Election in which Republican Mark LaJoye joined Darr and Tompkins on the ballot. Brown also ran a write-in campaign that garnered about 3 percent of the vote. Tompkins was the leading vote-getter but failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote, setting up a runoff with Darr, who finished second well ahead of LaJoye and Brown.
It was during the runoff, just four weeks after the General Election, that the public focus shifted to Darr’s ongoing lawsuit with the city over the funding of his office. Darr and Clerk of Superior Court Linda Pierce filed lawsuits against the city and its top leadership in late 2014, contending that Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Columbus Council improperly created budgets for their offices and that they were insufficient to carry out their obligations. Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop co-filed a similar suit shortly afterward.
Darr and Pierce were both defeated in re-election bids, while Countryman and Bishop were re-elected.
“I did that for the employees of the office and citizens of Muscogee County, but it was pointed straight at me,” Darr said of the suit. “... Good gracious, how many people could you have working against you? You had state Rep. Carolyn Hugley working like there’s no tomorrow to get me out of this office. You had two sitting council members, Glenn David and Pops Barnes, sending out emails against me.”
The email from Barnes supporting Tompkins created one of the lighter moments in the campaign for Darr.
“I guess I am on Pops’ email list because I got that one,” he said. “I sent him something back saying I probably won’t be doing that.”
Darr is convinced that Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was working against him, but doing it in a behind-the-scenes manner.
“This notion of ‘Teresa Tomlinson’ as the all powerful boogeyman is silly,” Tomlinson said. “It ignores the voters’ very real concern over the litigation and the Shah issue. Frankly, that’s the same type of misdirected thought process that got us in to the litigation in the first place. That conversation was always about limited revenue and budget maintenance.
“Sheriff Darr only heard the discussion as political maneuvering and a threat to his power. That misdirection resulted in a sad waste of time and resources.”
Darr should not have been surprised that he received opposition, Tompkins said.
“The idea that the mayor, the city manager and most of the city council members would be willing to come out and be supportive of someone who had not sued them personally, was not involved in a lawsuit that has cost the city almost $3 million, and was well qualified for the job should not have shocked him,” she said. “To think that they would not want to support that person. Of course they would.”
Tompkins thinks she was also helped by management issues inside the sheriff’s office.
“I don’t know who he was listening to,” she said. “It was bad, and when Randy Robertson left it got really bad. As dysfunctional as it already was, when he left it really became dysfunctional.”
Still, running against Darr presented a great challenge, Tompkins said.
“He is a very nice people person,” she said. “That was the biggest challenge running against him. Everybody said, ‘But John is such a nice guy. He is a good and decent person, he is a good daddy and good husband.’ I have never said he wasn’t.”
A new sheriff in town
As Tompkins prepares for her new role, she has some advantages that Darr did not have eight years ago.
The most obvious difference is Tompkins obtained higher rank and had more experience in the administrative and political aspects of the office. Robertson has a unique perspective in that he directly supervised both Darr and Tompkins at various times in his career.
“Sergeant, without a doubt, is the most important rank within any law enforcement agency,” Robertson said. “But as you move up, the air gets thinner and the reason it gets thinner is it is political rather than practical. The mindset, at that level, is sometimes more important than your skillset.”
Darr took the helm eight years ago without a lot of high-level administrative experience. That is the difference, said Ralph Johnson, the former sheriff Darr ousted.
“She is well-educated and she has worked in crucial areas such as lawsuits, a liaison with the city and city attorney, internal affairs and a lot of administration work,” Johnson said. “She knows policy and procedure. Those are the things that will keep you out of a jam. There is no question she is more prepared for this than John was.”
Tompkins has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbus State University, a level of formal education Darr does not hold.
But Tompkins agrees that her administrative experience will be important as she moves into the office on Jan. 3.
“I have an advantage over John because I have 30 years of experience and I went to the rank of captain,” she said. “I have dealt with the city on many issues. I have a lot of experience with personnel that he didn’t have. It is about putting together a good team that is going to help me do the things we have to do.”
Darr downplays his lack of experience eight years ago.
“I think you either know the operations of the sheriff’s office or you don’t,” he said. “I worked everywhere you could work.”
Tompkins also has another advantage. She saw the personnel issues that developed in the department as the result of Darr unseating Johnson. Tompkins and Maj. Terri Ezell sued Darr in federal court, claiming he retaliated against them for supporting Johnson politically in 2008. That suit was ultimately dismissed by Land in June 2013.
The judge set the tone for his June ruling against Ezell and Tompkins with the opening words: “If you shoot at a king, you must kill him.” Land was paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In November 2013, Tompkins and Lt. Joan Wynn did prevail in a gender discrimination suit against Darr and the sheriff’s office, claiming they were passed over for promotion to captain for a lesser qualified man. The jury awared no damages, but Land took the extraordinary move of ordering Tompkins promoted to captain.
“I don’t know if Donna is better equipped, but I do know the rank-and-file employees in the sheriff’s office are better equipped to handle it,” Robertson said. “Again, Ralph Johnson was the first incumbent sheriff who lost an election. At that time, it took the employees some time to get their sea legs. Some did and some didn’t.
“We have such a professional group of men and women who work down there that I think they will get beyond it. Donna has the personality where she will be able to talk to the naysayers and convince them to work with her to accomplish her goals in the sheriff’s office.”
Even Darr does not doubt Tompkins’ qualifications.
“She has the experience,” Darr said. “... You never heard me say anything bad about Donna. I never questioned her qualifications. All I said is I think I am the better person for the job.”
Asked what she learned from Darr’s transition to sheriff eight years ago, Tompkins paused.
“It is a really good question and I don’t know if I have a great political answer for you,” she said. “What I learned personally from it was that most people have a house payment, they have children, they have a car payment. Their life goes on. It is like all of these people who said, ‘If Donald Trump wins I am leaving the country.’ Yeah, you are still here. It is sort of the same thing with the sheriff’s race. I think that most of these people will be loyal to whoever is sitting in the seat.
“That is what I expect most people will do — maybe not all, but most, especially in the lower ranks.”
But Tompkins, who was hired by Sheriff Gene Hodge and worked under Johnson and Darr, makes it clear: it will be her office and she will assert her authority to run it in the manner she deems best.
“This is going to sound a little harsh, but get on my boat and paddle my boat or get off my boat,” she said. “It’s my boat. I will certainly give you the opportunity, for the most part, to get on and paddle my boat. That is harsh, but it is true.”