Justice -- or revenge? 

Prosecutor's motives an issue

Bill Campbell vs. Sally Yates? According to many of the mayor's top advisors, the very public investigation into Campbell's affairs by federal investigators led by Yates -- the head of the U.S. attorney's public corruption unit -- is more a political vendetta than a probe into wrongdoing.

It all started more than a year ago, when the federal prosecutor's office indicted little-known strip club operator Michael Childs on charges of arson related to fires at two competing strip clubs. Wiretaps during the federal investigation revealed that Childs offered money to a man to injure Mayor Campbell. "Mess him up real bad, let it be a message for the next mayor," said Childs on tape. It seems Campbell had sought to revoke Childs' operating permits over numerous offenses involving prostitution and drug sales.

Despite a stream of sensational headlines, nothing has stuck to the mayor

Today Childs remains free, and is still operating Club Nikki on Metropolitan Parkway and the Gentleman's Club downtown. His case has not been brought for prosecution. Instead, Childs and his employee, former Campbell aide Dewey Clark, turned the tables and offered up the mayor to the feds in what has become one of the most exhaustive probes in recent times.

So where does Yates fit in? It happens that, in addition to her prosecutorial duties, Yates is also the wife of local attorney Comer Yates. In 1996, Comer ran for Congress against Rep. Cynthia McKinney. During the course of the campaign, Comer asked Campbell to support him; Campbell instead threw his support to McKinney. Had Campbell supported Yates, the outcome of that race might well have turned out differently.

Now, more than a year after the investigation into Campbell's mayoralty, my sources tell me the Campbell defense team has filed a complaint with the Justice Department against Sally Yates. The papers filed with the Justice Department Office of Professional Standards contend that Yates should be removed from the investigation because of the role she played in her husband's campaign. They further contend that Campbell's failure to support Yates is the basis for the ongoing probe.

Can years-old sour grapes really play a part in the airing of Campbell's dirty laundry? Certainly Yates is in a position to conjure dark clouds over Campbell's head. Blacks supported McKinney over her husband in droves; is this payback for Campbell's role? Is Yates out to get the mayor? So far, the prosector's office is staying mum.

But if, as some charge, politics is the reason Yates is relentlessly peeping into every nook and cranny of the mayor's campaigns, personal life and habits, it's one hellish price to pay. Over the past year, at least 150 people -- nearly all African-Americans -- have been called before the FBI or to testify before a federal grand jury. Phone records, travel schedules, personal phone logs, expense reports, campaign records, tax records -- all have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb.

Despite leaks by the feds resulting in a stream of sensational headlines (usually indicating little more than minor misjudgments), nothing -- nothing -- has stuck to the mayor. Thus far, the only indictment that has led to a jail term involves an income tax-evasion charge against former Atlanta Civil Service Board Chairman Fred Prewitt, of which Campbell had no knowledge. Prewitt maintains that prosecutors vowed to send him to prison unless he gave them some dirt on the mayor. He didn't.

Some Campbell backers say Sally Yates is, at best, a bit overzealous; others portray her as Atlanta's own Ken Starr. Although not as autonomous as that obsessive special prosecutor, she still has the power to prosecute, subpoena witnesses and examine any avenue she pleases.

And there appears to be no end in sight. Witnesses are still being grilled by feds determined to find something -- anything -- that will stick to Campbell. Perhaps another investigation -- this one into the reported Justice Department complaint -- will help shed some light on just why Yates is so determined to bring Campbell down.

And so it goes. Is this an investigation or an inquisition? Will we ultimately see more indictments, or will we see the Justice Department itself uncover a scheme in which politics and a disgruntled strip club operator conspired to topple the mayor of Atlanta?

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