The employment of a member of U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop’s family in the office of Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman has the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looking into what the special GBI agent in charge called the possibility of “criminal misappropriation of funds.”
To say the implications of this matter are serious would be an understatement.
As reported in this newspaper in recent days, the stepdaughter of the veteran congressman, whose southwest Georgia district includes parts of Columbus, had been employed since Sept. 22 as an administrative assistant for the Junior Marshal Program, an outreach for at-risk youth created by Countryman in 2005. As of last month, she had been paid $7,575.
Part of the funding for that program comes from a $118,000 federal appropriation Bishop helped get into the budget last year.
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Bishop, who said earlier this week he had “no idea” his stepdaughter had been working for the Marshal’s Office, wrote Countryman a letter the day after the GBI investigation began at the marshal’s request, saying she “should not be paid from congressionally directed funds.”
Countryman, for his part, says he initiated the inquiry as a response to “whispers in the building,” and says the matter is “politically motivated and personal.”
The actions and responses of the principals in this episode have, at least to this point, raised far more questions than they have satisfactorily answered.
That Bishop did not know his stepdaughter was employed in the program — or, if he did, that he did not take into account the perception of conflict, given his role in that program’s funding — strains credulity, to put it mildly.
More recent revelations involving the congressman's wife, Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, and her son-in-law make this all the more disturbing (see breaking news at www.ledger-enquirer.com, and in Thursday’s print edition).
As for Countryman, his claim that the matter is purely political and personal can’t be summarily discounted — but it would be far more convincing if it were not the default position of every public figure who finds himself or herself in this kind of controversy. And, as with Bishop, the idea that the marshal could have been oblivious to the implications of hiring a family member of the lawmaker who helped fund the program strains common sense.
This is not about the worthiness of the Junior Marshal Program, which is the kind of community outreach more public officials should be doing. But the last thing such a program should ever be, in appearance or reality, is a patronage plum.
This newspaper has no agenda to discredit either of these officials, both of whom we have endorsed and supported. But that can have no bearing on the reporting of, or commentary about, these matters.
This investigation needs to go where it will. If the GBI finds satisfactory explanations, those will deserve at least equal attention to that given the inquiry. If not, then some prominent public figures will have some tough explaining of their own to do.
— Dusty Nix, for the editorial board