Hodges, Teilhet fight to the bitter end

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The Democratic campaign for attorney general has become so vicious and bitter that you’d almost expect the winner of the nomination to turn right around and have the losing candidate arrested.

The battle between state Rep. Rob Teilhet (D-Smyrna) and former Albany district attorney Ken Hodges has gone beyond the traditional criticisms typically exchanged in a political campaign – leaving the impression that these are two politicians who genuinely hate each other.

That could cause problems in the general election for whichever candidate wins the nomination – he may have trouble winning over the voters who supported his opponent because of the nastiness of the primary race.

The Republican primary for attorney general has been spirited, but not nearly as heated as the Democratic race.  Former Cobb County commissioner Sam Olens, state Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome) and former federal prosecutor Max Wood are competing in a primary race that may have to be decided in a runoff.

It’s a new experience for most Georgia voters to see the position of attorney general being decided in this manner.  Not since 1942 has there been an election where the incumbent attorney general had already decided to vacate the office, as Thurbert Baker is doing to run for governor.

In the Democratic conflict, the main point of contention has been prosecutorial experience.

Hodges has bashed Teilhet for not having worked in a prosecutor’s office, as Hodges did when he served 12 years as district attorney.  He ratcheted up the criticism to also accuse Teilhet of “paying lobbyists with your taxpayer money” in a TV spot.

Hodges’ prosecutorial experience, on the other hand, has included some highlights and lowlights.

While Hodges, as a special prosecutor, successfully secured the conviction of former DeKalb County sheriff Sid Dorsey on a murder charge, he has been under fire for the way he handled two other high-profile cases.

Hodges was appointed a special prosecutor during the investigation of a controversial Columbus incident in 2003 where a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed an unarmed man, Kenneth Walker, after a traffic stop.   The grand jury did not return an indictment of the deputy and Hodges has been criticized for allegedly bungling the case.

The Teilhet campaign released a powerful, gut-wrenching TV commercial that includes stark police videotape of the moments before Walker was killed.

Walker’s mother, Emily Walker, makes this emotional plea on-camera:  “He was lying on the ground, unarmed, when a police officer shot him twice in the head.  But the officer got off because the prosecutor, Ken Hodges, forgot to swear him in, tried to hide the video and then refused to reopen the case.  I could never get an answer why.  Mr. Hodges should not be our next attorney general.”

Hodges’ campaign aides demanded that the commercial be pulled, which Teilhet did not do.  “This is nothing more than shameful exploitation of a mother’s loss of a son,” Hodges said.

Richard Hyatt, a retired newsman who reported on the Walker investigation for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, made this comment on how Hodges handled the case:  “There’s no doubt in my mind Hodges made a blunder there.  Hodges’ role in it was not anything to put on his resume.”

Another source of criticism for Hodges has been his actions in a controversy involving Phoebe Putney Hospital, one of the largest employers in the Albany area.  Hodges’ wife once worked for Phoebe Putney and the hospital has been one of Hodges’ clients as a private attorney.

Two men from Albany sent anonymous faxes to local news media in 2003 and 2004 that criticized hospital executives for their salaries and financial holdings.  A Dougherty County grand jury indicted one of the men three times on charges connected to the sending of those faxes – indictments that were all subsequently dismissed.

Hodges has been slammed for allegedly using the powers of his office to trample on the First Amendment rights of two whistleblowers who were trying to bring some important facts to the public’s attention.  A documentary, “Do No Harm,” took a critical viewpoint of Hodges’ actions in this case.

Although a lawsuit was filed against Hodges by one of the whistleblowers in the Phoebe Putney incident, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has twice ruled, most recently last week, that Hodges cannot be sued.

The two Democrats have even fought over which one of them was really endorsed by former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, a dispute that Young settled when he told a reporter, “I plead guilty” to supporting both candidates.

In the GOP primary, Olens has had to deal with media reports from nearly two decades ago that identify him as a Democratic Party official in Cobb County supporting the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton.

Smith dug up a copy of a Feb. 25, 1992 article from the Marietta Daily Journal headlined “Clinton garners support from county Democrats” that lists Olens as a Clinton supporter and treasurer of the Cobb Democratic Party.  Smith demanded that Olens fess up to his status as a former Democrat.

Like Karen Handel in the governor’s race, who denied clear evidence that she once sought the support of gay voters, Olens has tried to deny his Democratic political roots.

“As a young attorney, I considered myself an independent and sometimes voted Democrat,” Olens told a Daily Journal reporter. “As I matured, I realized the Republican Party much better represented my values and beliefs.”

Smith has been a conservative state senator for eight years – so conservative that he broke with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and the Senate’s GOP leadership last session over Gov. Sonny Perdue’s hospital tax increase.  When Smith said he would not vote for the tax hike, he was stripped of his committee chairmanship.

“I did not do it for the headlines, I did it because it was the right thing to do and because I promised my constituents I’d never put my well-being above theirs,” Smith said.  “I gave my word – my bond – that I would not sit in the state capitol and vote to raise taxes.”

Wood, like Hodges, is a former prosecutor, having been a U.S. Attorney in Macon during the George W. Bush administration.

Wood has also criticized Olens for his Democratic Party background and made an issue of an incident when Olens, as the Cobb commission chairman, invited an atheist to give an “invocation” prior to a commission meeting.

© 2010 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: attorney general , Ken Hodges , Max Wood , Preston Smith , Rob Teilhet , Sam Olens