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franklin county times

Greed: Pending cases need resolution

By Staff
Sept. 9, 2001
Donna Jill Johnson has all the fun, and a few tough times, too.
As Lauderdale County's Circuit Clerk, she gets to know many of our local characters on a first name basis because, for one reason or another, they cross her path.
Like the old married couple that came looking for a certified copy of their marriage records, only to find the marriage was never officially registered. Maybe the minister who performed the ceremony forgot to send in the documentation.
Or the rational-looking man who came to the courthouse the other day to vote in the presidential election  yes, the one held last November. He said he had heard on TV that votes were still being counted.
That process is over, of course, even in Florida, where a couple of independent recounts by media organizations showed Bush won. Bush did win, and he's still president. No more voting in that race, please.
Embezzlement
And, Johnson gets to deal with the more unfortunate side of Circuit Court affairs, too. Such as the case last year when a former chief deputy clerk in her office pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement.
In remarks to the Meridian Kiwanis Club the other day, Johnson did not give the details of the incident  only to say it was the most painful thing with which she's had to deal in her decade as circuit clerk. But from newspaper accounts we learn that Cotonya Griffin, 28, of Meridian, was arrested July 11, 2000, after an undercover sting operation conducted by investigators from the Attorney General's and State Auditor's offices.
Griffin admitted to embezzling $3,747 between Oct. 1, 1996, and July 11, 2000. She was sentenced
to three years probation and ordered to repay the money. Griffin was also fined $500, and ordered to pay for the cost of the investigation, listed as $2,074.15.
According to the newspaper story, the arrest came as a result of a tip from a concerned citizen.
One of her excuses was that Johnson let office employees take money home for the night as long as they plan to bring it back. Not so, Johnson said emphatically.
White collar crime
Attorney General Mike Moore said at the time the prosecution was part of his aggressive stance against white-collar crime. "This office will continue to prosecute those officials who choose to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayers of this state," Moore said.
State Auditor Phil Bryant echoed that sentiment, commending both Moore and Lauderdale County District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell for their interest in solving the case.
Griffin had been employed with the Circuit Clerk's office since Aug. 1, 1994.
In fact, Moore has taken a tough stand against white collar crime and this Lauderdale County case was but one more example.
As for Johnson and the courthouse staff with which she spends her working days, setting up the sting operation and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of Griffin was taken like the loss of a family member. It's a fairly close-knit group over there, but they know any violation of a law is also a violation of the public trust and must be dealt with.
It's an unfortunate fact of life in government at any level that incidents of personal greed do occur. It's important to get the facts, prosecute if that's what prosecutors think is necessary, make the appropriate public disclosures and then move on to restore the public's confidence in the office's operations.
We still await resolution of two local incidents of theft or apparent embezzlement or whatever you might want to call it when money disappears. One involves two city employees of the Meridian Police Department and the other involves a former employee of the Meridian Regional Airport.
There are assurances that the investigations are continuing, but sooner rather than later we need to know what happened and what the appropriate authorities propose to do about it.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail him at bbynum@themeridianstar.com.

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