Before I give a brief account for why we as a newspaper are so vigorously pursuing the truth about district attorney candidate Rudjard Hayes’ prosecutor performance claims, let me in preface say that my major motivations as a journalist are to please God by serving our readers well. Go ahead and roll your eyes or whatever, but that’s the simple truth.
So you’ll understand why, when I’m presented with evidence that a candidate in what I consider to be one of the most important elected offices in any community is deliberately misleading the public, including our readers, about their qualifications for office, I am inclined to do some research.
In this case, I was editing pages of this newspaper on Tuesday of last week, and I came across a letter to the editor from Erik Manning, husband of Cindy Manning who finished last in the three-way Primary Election for district attorney of the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette, Spalding, Upson, and Pike counties. Presently, defense attorney and former assistant district attorney Rudjard Hayes and current assistant district attorney Ben Coker are in a runoff for that seat that will be decided July 26.
In Erik Manning’s letter, he challenged Hayes’ performance claims from when he was an assistant district attorney from Nov. 1996 to Nov. 2004 in the Coweta Judicial Circuit and when he was an assistant district attorney from Jan. 2005 to March 2007 in the Griffin Judicial Circuit.
I stepped away from my desk and asked my editor and publisher why they didn’t give this letter directly to me. If the accusations are true, I said, then that’s a news story. We went ahead and ran the letter, and then I began my own investigation.
First, I looked over the campaign materials in question. Between two large mailers and a half-page newspaper ad (not our paper), I saw for myself that Hayes is making, among others, the following claims:
1) He “is the only candidate who has experience running a large district attorney’s office – saving taxpayers’ money”;
2) He “is the only candidate who has been recognized as an expert in prosecuting child molestation cases”;
3) He “is the only candidate who has experience managing a large budget, staff, and created policies and procedures for the District Attorney’s office”; and
4) to have under his belt “300 felony trials prosecuted.”
Next, I called Scott Ballard, who is the current district attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit. He is a superior court judge-elect, so he limited his comments, but he did say he found it unlikely that Hayes actually tried that many felony cases. Ballard also said Hayes never managed any money for his office.
Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Pete Skandalakis had more to say about his former employee, but echoed Ballard, saying Hayes had not managed any money for his office, nor did he believe Hayes could have possibly racked up 300 felony jury trials in his combined 10 years of service as an assistant district attorney.
Skandalakis went on to say the following: “My Chief Assistant District Attorney has been prosecuting for nearly 30 years and has been the most active trial lawyer on my staff. She estimates she has prosecuted less than 160 jury trials.”
More recently (Tuesday afternoon, to be exact), I spoke on the phone with retired Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Al Dixon, who, after retiring from Fulton County as head of the Major Felony Unit in April 2005, worked for Ballard for two years and was Hayes’ supervisor for most of that time.
“There is no way,” Dixon told me. “He might have worked on that many cases and taken a plea or handed it to somebody else. Maybe bench trials. There’s just no way he could have tried 300 [felony jury trials].”
Dixon said he personally in his 27-career in Fulton County only tried perhaps 200 felony jury trials.
I called Hayes Friday morning and left a cell phone message. I e-mailed him a bit later that morning. Both times, I told him I was running a story about the campaign and needed to speak to him. That afternoon, I left a message with Hayes’ secretary, again saying I needed to ask him campaign questions.
Monday night during the forum, Hayes on stage replied to one of my questions and remarked that he never returned my call because I never told him why I was calling. Not true. He also said he was unavailable on a trip since Tuesday of last week, including some sort of activity with his daughter on Friday. And that’s funny, because his secretary emphatically told me, “If you had only called Thursday” that I could have reached him, but he could not be reached by phone Friday. Only she said he was away on a business trip.
Even funnier is that Hayes’ secretary said I could give her a list of my questions, she would forward them to Hayes, and he would have a reply ready in time for my Friday deadline for Saturday’s paper. So, then, how was he not able to return a simple phone call and answer my simple questions?
At any rate, I did ask plenty of questions Monday night at the Fayette GOP HQ, both during the forum inside and during a face-to-face discussion outside on the sidewalk. Between what he said inside and outside, he backtracked and said he never claimed to manage an actual DA office budget, but rather he meant he has had to “manage” large settlements for litigation clients over the years. Yeah, and I was for a short time a financial advisor, and I had assets under management, which I actually helped my clients to use in purchasing investments. But even that wasn’t me “managing” a budget, nor was that Hayes “managing” a budget. But clearly in that mailer he was implying it was a large DA office budget, which according to his bosses never happened.
Hundreds of felony jury trials? Hayes eventually changed his story to include having sat in on other lawyers’ cases and sometimes sitting in what they call the “second chair” in a case. That’s just not the same as prosecuting 300 felony jury trials.
Running a large DA’s office? That would include Spalding County, where there were only a few employees, and then in Coweta, where, according to Skandalakis, there were three assistant district attorneys, two secretaries, one receptionist, and one investigator. The kicker is that he says he is the only one to do this, and yet Ben Coker currently manages both Pike and Upson counties, which can’t have many fewer employees than that.
Claim #2? He explained that one year he was invited to a group training session out of state, and he was one of only a handful of people invited to it. It was there he earned the mantle “expert” in prosecuting molestation cases. That doesn’t even make sense. Being an expert doesn’t come from attending a class. That’s a theoretical expert.
I don’t say he’s not an expert, by the way, and I imagine he and Coker both are experts on the matter. But to say Hayes alone is the expert is arrogant at the least, and to say that title was earned at a seminar is misleading at best.
Monday night, Hayes made it clear with his own words he believes I’m a nobody and not worth answering. And that’s fine. And he’s right. I am not individually important. But that’s not who I was, an individual, when I called Hayes on that Friday morning.
I am “Danny Harrison, Fayette County News.” Sometimes I add, “and Today in Peachtree City.” When I call wearing that name tag, I represent our readers, and especially our paid subscribers, who expect us to find out the truth and present it to them in a timely fashion.
That’s a task that is harder by the year to accomplish, not just because I have a wife and four kids now to think about, but also because our community is growing and doing more. What I love is when public personalities make our jobs easier by just telling the truth and not exercising their lust for greatness to the point of making stuff up to boost themselves higher than they ought. More than that, I hate it when people lie to make other people look smaller, in this case Hayes’ opponents.
Mr. Hayes, if somehow you do become district attorney, I have no doubt you will do some sort of a good job. However, if you don’t straighten up with your fact sharing, many of us won’t know whether to believe you or not, and that will be a shame.
And you don’t answer to me, Mr. Hayes. You were right when you said that in so many words outside Monday night. But you answer to God and to the people you say you want to serve.