Letter from the sheriff's lawyers included resignation offer and details about illness
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
By Don Lowery
for the Savannah Morning News
Effingham County Sheriff Jay Space offered to resign about a week before he was arrested on drug charges, according to a letter Space's lawyers sent to county commissioners.
In return for his resignation, Space sought a disability severance package that included a monthly stipend for 15 years and continuation of his medical insurance.
In the letter dated July 3, Space's lawyers admitted he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996 -- nearly six years longer than previously disclosed.
The letter from Hermann Coolidge and Bobby Phillips was dated after Space was suspended by Gov. Roy Barnes.
According to the letter, Space's medical condition worsened in 2001 when "he became incapable of controlling his behavior unable to think and act rationally or act in a competent manner."
The letter does not address drug abuse alleged by District Attorney Joe Martin in a petition to remove Space from office filed July 10.
Commissioner Homer Lee Wallace and Chairman Phillip King said they were shocked by the letter because Space spurned earlier offers during the previous six months.
They also said Space led them to believe he had been diagnosed with MS last spring.
"When we received the letter saying he knew he had MS since 1996, it was shocking," Wallace said. "We thought he just found out about it last year."
"He has misled the public about what has been going on," King said.
But Dave Simons, a spokesman for Space, said the sheriff's medical condition was not a factor in his job performance for years.
"I'm a diabetic. Does that make me disabled?" Simons said Tuesday. "Jay ran for sheriff because he felt he was capable of doing that job and the voters of Effingham County agreed. After his first term in office, he was elected again so the voters must have felt he was doing a good job.
"The county commissioners have nothing to do with hiring or firing him, and he does not owe them any explanation," Simons said.
Repeated telephone calls to Phillips were not returned Tuesday.
About six weeks before the letter, county officials offered Space a retirement annuity package and other incentives to resign, King said.
"We talked to (the Georgia Sheriff's Association) and tried to make an offer to Jay through the association, since he was not willing to talk to us in person," King said. "But the word we got back was that he didn't want to talk about it."
Commissioners proposed a retirement annuity of up to $180,000 through the sheriff's association and other incentives.
After Barnes suspended Space on June 18, the amount of the annuity offer dropped by $100,000.
In addition to the annuity, Space's lawyers called for the 40-year-old Space to be paid a monthly stipend until he reaches retirement age of 55. The lawyers also said the county should pay his medical insurance during that period.
Commissioners offered to pay Space his full salary for the remainder of his two-year term and provide him with a personal driver.
King said the offer was withdrawn after suspended sheriff was charged with five felony drug violations.
"There probably could have been some agreement up until we found that drugs were involved," King said. "We could not give tax dollars to anyone charged with abusing drugs."
TIME FRAME SURROUNDING LETTER
Mid-May -- County officials contact Georgia Sheriff's Association officials and attempt to offer Jay Space a retirement annuity and other incentives to resign. GSA officials later tell county officials Space is not interested in any such offers.
May 28 -- Sheriff's Association President Tyson Stephens requests that Gov. Roy Barnes call for an investigation of Space's conduct. Meanwhile, Effingham County Commissioners send the governor a letter supporting that request.
June 5 -- Barnes appoints two sheriffs and the attorney general to conduct an investigation of Space's alleged incapacity.
June 10-13 -- The committee travels to Savannah and interviews nearly 20 individuals about Space's conduct.
June 18 -- Barnes suspends Space for 60 days and said District Attorney Joe Martin should decide if he intends to file a petition in Superior Court to remove Space permanently.
July 3 -- Lawyers Hermann Coolidge and Bobby Phillips write a letter stating Space is willing to resign if the county offers him an appropriate disability severance package.
July 10 -- District Attorney Martin files a petition to remove Space
from office and the suspended sheriff is arrested a short time later on
five felony drug charges.
Copyright 2002 Savannah Morning News