The story of love at the governor's mansion is unlikely to end up on the silver screen. But it did find its way into the local daily paper, setting off a bitter counterattack by Republican leaders in another eruption of the culture war that constantly rages around us. The story also highlighted the hypocrisy that so often seems to bubble up around politicians who talk the loudest about "family values."
The tale began when one of Gov. Sonny Perdue's daughters, Leigh Perdue Brett, dumped her schoolteacher husband back home in Perry and married a state trooper who had been assigned to guard her father and his family.
The story first saw print in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Dec. 22, but rumors about it had been swirling around the state for more than three months. In fact, I went down to Perry in October to pick up a copy of the divorce case documents. Leigh Brett filed for divorce in March and won child support payments for their 5-year-old twin girls. The divorce was granted May 27.
She married her trooper, James Philip Brown, in September, the same month he was transferred from his duties protecting the governor and the first family to the State Patrol post in Gainesville.
Throughout the fall, rumors boiled up that the relationship had led to a shakeup in the State Patrol's executive security detail housed at the governor's mansion. One rumor had the head of the entire state patrol being forced to move from his office in Atlanta to a lonely outpost in Athens. Col. George Ellis, who was head of the patrol, says it never happened.
As soon as the AJC story appeared on the front of the Metro section, the governor's staff and political allies moved to knock it down.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, told Bill Shipp's Georgia that the article "demonstrates the widespread belief that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a bias toward Republicans." He said the paper unnecessarily focused on a personal matter regarding the governor's family.
"This could be a miniature version of the paper's Dan Rather, and at the very least, it appears to be tabloid in nature, a very disappointing way to begin Christmas," Ehrhart said.
The governor's spokesman, Dan McLagan, told the political newsletter: "Democratic operatives have been trying for months to get this non-story published. They've been turned down by everyone from the Associated Press to Creative Loafing."
Not so fast, Dan.
We didn't exactly "turn down" the story.
In the first place, I picked up the lead from Capitol gossip. The main reason we didn't publish it was that I wasn't able to find the marriage license between the ex-Mrs. Brett and Trooper Brown. I suspect that a courthouse employee in North Georgia may have told me a little fib along the way.
The AJC's Rhonda Cook did find the license and, at one point, whipped it out to show Ellis that the happy couple indeed was married. No one had bothered to inform him.
I know Rhonda. We used to work together at UPI. She's one of the most tenacious reporters in Georgia. She's uncovered scandals involving both Democrats and Republicans, and she's not one to tread softly in dealing with public officials.
The Dec. 22 story, co-written by Cook and Cameron McWhirter, got edgy at the point it reported that Steven Harrell, the divorce attorney for Joey Brett, Leigh's ex-husband, said his client was "highly suspicious" that his wife was involved with Trooper Brown before the Brett marriage ended.
McLagan told the AJC that the governor's family and their personal lives "is not fair game."
But the story is fair game. And it's certainly not a sign of media bias against Republicans.
Former President Jimmy Carter's 17-year-old grandson, Jeremy Carter, was arrested in Peachtree City a few weeks ago on charges of burglary, misdemeanor possession of marijuana and underage possession of alcohol. The AJC put that in the paper.
If Leigh Perdue Brett had married a shoe salesman, it wouldn't have been news. But her private life became the public's business when she became romantically involved with a state employee whose job was to protect her father and who was based at the governor's mansion.
"It's not proper for security detail people to become involved with protectees like that," says Ellis, who retired effective last week.
Ehrhart also attacked the AJC story because the article failed to connect the dots. He had a point about that.
"This story only has one fact in it: Gov. Perdue's daughter married a state trooper," he said. "The rest of the story seems to lack a direct connection from point A to B to C."
Apparently, the newspaper's lawyers "vetted" the story. That's like letting the family dog "vet" the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. The story read like a lawyer had taken a bite out of the narrative flow. That made it hard to follow.
The story said that after the wedding, a top Perdue aide ordered the transfer out of the mansion of Stuart Hicks, the head of the executive security detail, to a position for which he did not apply and was not qualified. But Hicks denied he was moved at the request of the governor's office. And Brown moved to Gainesville in September after requesting a transfer.
The story also said Ellis "says the circumstances surrounding the transfers contributed to his decision to retire ... ." Ellis now denies that. "That was not why I left," he said last week. "I got my time in and can go to the house."
One angle to the story, with ramifications for State Patrol morale, is that the governor's new son-in-law wasn't disciplined, although the patrol has a rich history of punishing troopers for sexual adventures.
All troopers are required to adhere to a code of ethics, which includes this statement: "I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency."
Two troopers were disciplined earlier this year for having extramarital affairs. And three troopers were suspended in 2001 after two of them had sex in a Warner Robins restaurant with a woman who apparently was so smitten that she didn't even bother to leave the restaurant before taking part in a menage a trois. The third was disciplined for not reporting it.
These troopers seem to get more action than Sinatra.
Yet, Ellis says he never disciplined Brown. He had heard rumors that the trooper and Leigh Brett were involved, but never saw reason to give credence to them -- until Cook produced the marriage license.
"I didn't even launch an investigation," Ellis says. "Nobody complained about his conduct on duty."
Down in Perry, Joey Brett's lawyer told me that Brett lost his position as a deacon in a Baptist church because of the divorce. The church doesn't allow divorced people to serve as deacons, regardless of who initiates the split.
Brett wouldn't talk to reporters, except that he did tell me he still has a good relationship with the governor.
On my way out of town, I drove by his house. A pickup truck in the driveway had a big "Sonny" sticker on the back window.
Humbug Square was Atlanta's 19th-century gathering place for snake-oil salesmen and soapbox orators. Senior Editor Doug Monroe continues that tradition in this column. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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