Humbug Square - Was Walker the Tip of Grady's Iceberg?

State senator's scandal makes you ashamed to be a Democrat

When she first met Charles Walker, Joyce Harris was impressed. He was one of the most powerful men in Georgia, but he spoke to her about a life that began in poverty. Born into a sharecropper's family with 14 children, Walker grew up to become the state Senate majority leader.

Harris listened politely. She didn't tell him her own story. She came from a hardscrabble background in rural Arkansas. Her father, one generation removed from slavery, worked at a sawmill. Her mother cleaned homes. But Harris rose above her humble beginnings to become the highest-ranking woman at Grady Memorial Hospital: senior vice president for human resources.

The pleasantries between Walker and Harris ended, she says, when the powerful Democrat demanded that Grady hire more workers from his temporary employment agency. Sometimes, she says, he wanted Grady to hire as many as 50 a day, though the public hospital - operated under the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority - had previously hired as few as three a day. Harris adds that her boss, then-Grady CEO Edward Renford, demanded that she "schmooze" Walker more and cautioned her not to make him angry.

But Harris says she made the Augusta lawmaker angrier by not hiring more temps. She claimed in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit that she was fired in 1998 partly because of her complaints about payments to Walker. Grady denied her allegations. Her lawsuit was dismissed in 2002.

But she wasn't the only one accusing Walker of shady dealings. Before Democrats lost power, when lobbyists came to his Capitol office seeking favors, he reportedly would pat the head of a toy dog on his desk and ask, "What's in it for my little friend?"

According to a federal indictment, Walker's temp company earned $2.5 million from Grady between 1996 and 2000. His corruption trial begins May 23 in Augusta. Harris hopes to testify against him. Her 1999 TV interview about the senator helped spur inquiries into his dealings.

"My dad told me I could say what I wanted because I was born free," she says. But her tenacity has been costly. She has never again worked in the hospital industry.

Walker's trial comes on the heels of another Augusta politician's conviction. Former Republican state Rep. Robin Williams stole $2 million from the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia. Looks like health care is where the money is!Walker was indicted last summer by a federal grand jury on 142 counts, nine of which relate to using his power to get business at Grady. The rest arise in Augusta. Allegations range from cheating Kmart on ad inserts in his weekly newspaper to doing the same thing at the Medical College of Georgia that he did at Grady. The indictment alleges he was trying to cover $530,000 in gambling losses.

The indictment itself is tainted. The federal investigation of Walker began under then-U.S. Attorney Richard Thompson of the Southern District of Georgia, a Republican who resigned after the Justice Department chastised him for using his office to help a Republican friend win an election.

But Democrats are deeper in the muck when it comes to Walker. Although the whiff of scandal followed Walker around for years, then-Gov. Roy Barnes made him one of his biggest allies and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor virtually shared power with Walker in the Senate. They weren't about to alienate a black legislator who could deliver thousands of votes. Never mind that he was allegedly ripping off poor, sick black people.

Walker was a prime reason that then-Sen. Sonny Perdue switched parties in 1998. Perdue went on to be elected governor - as a Republican. Walker lost his seat in 2002 but was re-elected last year.

Even when asked, Democrats wouldn't investigate Walker. William Loughrey, a Grady trustee, says he urged Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker to investigate Walker's business dealings with the hospital.

"He sent back a letter saying he had no jurisdiction, which was an outrage," says Loughrey, a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "I sent him a letter saying that's absurd. The state does millions of dollars of business with Grady. It's very troubling that a law enforcement officer wouldn't look into a clear case of corruption." Baker spokesman Russ Willard said he'd look for a record of the letters but as of press time hadn't called back.

Loughrey says he didn't bother writing Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, also a Democrat, because Howard is "the most pathetic district attorney I've ever seen." Howard spokesman Erik Friedly says the office doesn't have the authority to investigate a state case.

Even more troubling to Loughrey was what happened at Grady when he requested an in-house investigation of the Walker contract.

"I was concerned about whether this was an independently awarded contract or a political payoff," he says. "I asked for an internal investigation. They conducted it and said all the records were missing for the contract. [General Counsel] Tim Jefferson conducted the investigation and Ed Renford was the CEO. Ed blamed it on 'sabotage.' It was a coverup."

Grady referred my calls to Alston & Bird attorney Bernard Taylor. In response to written questions, Taylor noted that federal investigators "have not advised the authority of any conclusions that the authority was involved in a 'coverup.'"

In fact, he said, the authority "has been advised that it is not a target of the Walker investigation."

The indictment does state that Walker "was improperly coached by Grady executives in order to ensure that he would be the low bidder in the bidding process." But no Grady officials were indicted.It seems impossible that Walker committed his alleged crimes without help.

Some want to leave the scandal in the past and look to a brighter future under Grady's new CEO, Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, who succeeded Renford. "The new CEO is doing a great job," acknowledges Loughrey.

But a small band of activists has flooded officials and the media with calls for an investigation into Walker's "co-conspirators." The "New Grady Coalition" says potential witnesses are terrified of retribution. And its leaders have honed in on DeKalb officials, who they claim assisted Walker in defrauding taxpayers.

Their charges have been largely ignored, but they recently found an outlet: the online edition of a British true-crime publication called the New Criminologist (www.newcriminologist.co.uk/). There, amid stories about the execution of a sado-sexual serial killer, readers can see releases blasting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for not extensively covering the Grady story and a letter from a Washington doctor who proclaims that the "magnitude of the issue of corruption at Grady and among Georgia officials is so huge as to be almost incomprehensible."

Earlier this year, the coalition's leaders - Rome ethics activist George Anderson and Ron Marshall, an ex-football player who ran unsuccessfully for DeKalb CEO last year - asked the DeKalb Ethics Board to investigate their claims. They filed a 223-page complaint against DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones and Robert L. Brown, a Decatur architect who is chairman of Grady's board of trustees. The ethics board declined to investigate, saying the evidence wasn't specific.

Last week, the activists lodged complaints against the ethics board for sunshine law violations. This week, coalition members are headed to Washington to take part in a congressional forum on medical integrity.

As the Walker case goes to trial, they hope to hold more officials responsible for a scandal that ultimately took away life-saving resources from the most vulnerable people in our society - while top Georgia Democrats looked the other way.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe is happy to report that last week's column about Sequay Jackson, 16, who had been missing since Dec. 10, helped lead to her return. Her mother reports she is back at home. Doug's e-mail address is: doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.??