VALDOSTA, Ga. – A southern Georgia sheriff faces federal charges accusing him of billing inmates for room and board and interfering with an FBI investigation of local judges.
An indictment unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court accuses Clinch County Sheriff Winston Peterson of perjury, obstruction of justice, using forced labor and extorting former jail inmates.
Peterson, 62, pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday and was released on $10,000 bond.
Investigators say the sheriff charged jail inmates $18 per day for room and board. County officials agreed in April 2006 to return $27,000 to hundreds of inmates who paid the fees between 2000 and 2004. Peterson also used an inmate to do work at a business run by his wife, investigators say.
The sheriff is charged with obstructing justice by alerting an unindicted co-conspirator about the identity of an FBI informant he believed was part of a criminal investigation into courthouse activities. He is also accused of lying during a grand jury investigation of a Superior Court judge.
Neither Peterson nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday night. An after-hours call to his attorney's home went unanswered, and the sheriff could not be reached through the dispatcher.
Peterson is the latest Clinch County official to be caught up in investigations into the rural county's practices.
Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III and Chief State Court Judge Berrien Sutton face allegations by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a state agency that investigates Georgia judges and has power to recommend removing them from office. They have not been charged with any crimes.
Blitch, 72, is accused of ordering illegal payments to county employees, ordering the early release of imprisoned felons and presiding over a case involving his son.
Blitch's attorneys have said an investigation will prove he is innocent.
Sutton is accused of appointing non-lawyers to hear criminal cases, pressing a magistrate judge to help one of his business associates and signing an illegal order to collect court fees that were later distributed to county officials.
Thomas Whithers, an attorney for Sutton, said Wednesday the judge looks forward to his day in court. "Judge Sutton has done nothing wrong and will vigorously defend these allegations," he said.