After a long day of tedious repetition in both testimony and attorney arguments Friday, jurors in the trial of suspended sheriff’s worker Regina Millirons found her not guilty of each of the 10 charges prosecutors had pressed against her.
Supporters in the courtroom wept as Millirons embraced attorneys Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick after the verdict, which jurors reached in 90 minutes, going back to deliberate at 5:03 p.m. when others in the Columbus Government Center were leaving to start their weekends.
The verdict came back at 7:33 p.m.
Millirons afterward expressed relief and gratitude, saying she felt like the issue had put her life on hold for five years, three of which she spent suspended with pay as authorities pondered how to handle the case.
Her attorneys said they were thankful the jury saw their side of the dispute, and hoped the verdict sent a message to other city workers who might expose issues within the government were they not afraid of retaliation.
Millirons was accused of mishandling confidential personnel records as she tried to get city administrators, particularly Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, to investigate whether sheriff’s employees were being paid for time they didn’t work, whether a worker who took a medical retirement was fit to supervise jail inmates when he came back to work as a baliff, and whether cash paid to off-duty officers transporting inmates to family funerals was accurately tracked.
When she felt “stonewalled” by the city officials she complained to, she turned to her Shelnutt, who tried to set up a meeting with the mayor and attorneys who represent the city. The mayor did not attend. The attorneys for the city said they needed documentation to back Millirons’ complaints.
So she gathered records from the sheriff’s office for Shelnutt to deliver to the mayor. But some were personnel records bearing dates of birth and Social Security numbers, information that by law is not for public dissemination.
The result was that she was suspended with pay before prosecutors got a 10-count indictment charging public records theft and fraud, charges for which she went on trial this week.
In the final day of testimony Friday, Chief Assistant District Attorney Alonza Whitaker repeatedly asked Millirons to point out what wrongdoing was illustrated by the records she gave Shelnutt. In most cases she was unable to do so.
But she remained defiant when Whitaker questioned whether she had any obligation to investigate discrepancies in payroll records.
Millirons, whose duties included plugging such information into a computer system so it could be tracked, said any conflicts that came to light in employees’ work hours would be her responsibility to reconcile.
“If there’s an audit, they’re going to come to me,” she said.
The man whose disability led to his taking a medical retirement on Dec. 31, 2010 was in no condition to supervise inmates when he returned to work the following Jan. 10 as a court baliff, yet he went to work in the jail overseeing inmates, she said.
“That was a huge liability for the city,” she said, and Sheriff John Darr knew it: “The sheriff knew when he went back in that jail that he (the baliff) should not be back in there.”
Asked about how funds were handled for inmate transport to family funerals, Millirons said the families come to the sheriff’s office and pay the expense of having an off-duty officer in uniform driving a city vehicle pick the inmate up and return him. That expense in one case was around $1,100, she said.
At one point deputies were collecting those funds without writing the families a receipt, she said. The funds were supposed to be deposited and the officer reimbursed, but employees instead were taking the cash and giving it directly to the officer doing the work, she said.“Giving the money directly to the officers, that was the mismanagement,” she said.
Kendrick in his closing argument said Millirons was ordered to shut up and do her job.
Mimicking the sheriff, he said: “Don’t talk to me, woman. I’m a man. Do your job.”
No evidence showed his client intended to convert other workers’ personal information for her use or for anyone else’s, as she expected it to be shared only with the mayor, who could access it herself if she wanted, Kendrick said.
He said the city simply was trying to silence Millirons in violation of its own “whistleblower” policy that encourages workers to report fraud, waste and abuse.
He implored jurors to help safeguard their money by finding Millirons innocent: “This is your money they’re not keeping track of. It’s not theirs. Are you brave enough to stand up with her? I believe all of you are.”
Whitaker in his closing argument reminded jurors Millirons was the one on trial for the charges listed in her indictment, which he brandished before the jury, saying, “This is the indictment . This is the controlling document.” The city’s whistleblower policy was not, he said.
He added that Millirons was the defendant, not Darr: “The sheriff is not on trial here.”
Millirons was accused of violating Georgia’s Open Records Act, which says personal information such as Social Security numbers is not to be divulged. It carries no exceptions for showing such data to an attorney or to a mayor, he said.
He said the defense was trying to “manufacture justification” for what clearly was a violation of state law, regardless of Millirons’ stated intentions: “You may mean well, but that doesn’t excuse you.”
The arguments and testimony became repetitious as attorneys tried to persusade the jury either that Millirons was a conscientious worker trying to correct problems in the sheriff’s office or a disgruntled employee recklessly mishandling confidential information. Hearing the same words repeated over and over, some of the jurors stopped taking notes as the day wore on.
Shelnutt said after the trial that it was an injustice for authorities not only to press criminal charges against a city worker trying to correct issues within her office, but to put her through the ordeal and expense of a trial, also at a cost to the taxpayers.
Millirons and her attorneys said they were unsure how the verdict would affect her employment status.