Pssst ... Wanna know a secret? 

In Georgia, officials keep your business under wraps

Civics quiz time, kiddies. For our first question, what type of political system do we live in? I see a hand waving back there. It's little Jacquelyn Barrett. You say it's a democracy? That's absolutely right. And what do you want to be when you grow up? A sheriff? That's wonderful.

Here's the second question. Who makes the most important decisions in a democracy? I don't see any hands up. Oh, there's Jacquelyn again. You think politicians know what's best for the rest of us? Well, that's not exactly right. Elected officials are merely the hired hands, and their boss is ...

Good, I see other hands. Yes, Roy Barnes over there. You're right, Roy, it's The People who should make the major decisions. You want to be governor? Keep talking about The People and you might get your wish.

Last question, children. For The People to make decisions, what do they need? I see a lot of blank faces out there. I'll give you this one. The answer is: information. Without information -- especially about what government is doing -- you can't have an informed citizenry. And without The People knowing what the hell is happening, you can't have democracy.

If you got an 'A' on that lesson, maybe you can explain one of the great conundrums of democratic governance. Why are the very people who jump up and shout, "Vote for me!" often the same ones who betray the very system they claim to champion? They say they believe in the will of The People, and then do their damnedest to undermine that will.

Nowhere is this more evident than with public records. For all of the blizzard of excuses bureaucrats use to keep things secret -- from "national security" to "economic development" to "privacy" -- what's very often being protected is fraud, waste, mismanagement, corruption and, occasionally, really serious criminality.

Consider this true-life event that happened recently in Atlanta: A man pulls his car up to two police cruisers parked at City Hall East and tells the cops that two men in another car are chasing him. A cop takes off after the road ragers and catches up with them a few blocks away. The driver turns out to be a Fulton County sheriff's deputy -- with his pistol lying on his seat next to a half-empty beer. There's a partly consumed bottle of Southern Comfort in the back seat. And the deputy is legally drunk.

This deputy is your employee. You pay his salary. You pay the salary of his boss -- Fulton County Sheriff Jacquelyn Barrett.

The story of that deputy -- a man contemptuous of the law he has sworn to uphold -- is detailed in this week's CL cover story by Mara Shalhoup. She also provides a wealth of information on other lowlife deputies, thugs-with-badges who have repeatedly abused citizens and jail inmates, covered up their violent crimes and lied about their actions.

There are several frightening things about Shalhoup's investigation into Sheriff Barrett's department. First, the department often did little but issue limp warnings to the brutal officers. Further, in a few instances where Barrett did try to remove employees, personnel flunkies reinstated the deputies.

All of that is horrible enough -- and well deserving of an investigation by a federal grand jury.

But an even greater, if more subtle, offense against the public has been committed, not only by the sheriff but, in a wave of lawlessness and disregard for citizens' rights, by public officials throughout the state. Georgia bureaucrats are woefully high-handed when it comes to denying information to taxpayers.

In the case of the Barrett's operation, after Shalhoup got wind that viciousness and brutality were standard operating procedures for some deputies, CL requested files on 10 of the most offensive officers. Although Shalhoup initially was allowed to view the records, Barrett's administrative assistant then made every effort to stall, harass and impede the reporter's attempts to get copies of the documents. The assistant rendered bizarre interpretations of state law to defend her actions. She refused to return calls. The quoted price for copying the documents increased 55 percent without explanation.

The reason for the hurdles was obvious: The sheriff likely would be embarrassed by CL's questions. However, face-saving is not an excuse to break the law -- something a sheriff should understand.

Ultimately, CL got most of what we had requested -- which doesn't mitigate the flagrant disdain of the sheriff in ignoring the legally required promptness in producing the documents. Nor has the sheriff released photographs, as required by law.

In the course of our probe of one deputy, Shalhoup uncovered one incendiary situation at the jail. Jamil Al-Amin, once known as civil rights activist H. Rap Brown, has been jailed since March 2000 on charges that he shot two sheriff's deputies, killing one of them. CL obtained references to allegations that Al-Amin has been abused while in custody. Those allegations are not at all far-fetched considering the records of deputies uncovered by Shalhoup -- and considering that Al-Amin is accused of murdering a colleague of his jailers.

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