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Judge investigated for making secret payments

Judge Brooks Blitch ordered payments to five workers totaling more than $67,000 over six years. An audit showed the money was kept off the books and never taxed. He was known for being generous, spending thousands on courthouse improvements.
Brooks E. Blitch III88FILRE**
Superior Court Judge Brooks Blitch III, shown in 1998 with his wife Peg, is being investigated for making $67,255 in undisclosed payments to Clinch County employees after FBI agents raided Blitch’s office in June 2007.Florida Times-Union file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sheriff got a patrol car worth more than $23,000. The tax assessor received a $2,400 computer, and City Hall got its carpets cleaned — all with the stroke of a judge’s pen.

Judge Brooks Blitch III was known for being generous, ordering new equipment for government employees and spending thousands on courthouse improvements.

Commissioners in sparsely populated Clinch County always complied with his requests — until they discovered Blitch had ordered payments to five workers totaling more than $67,000 over six years. An audit showed the money was kept off the books and never taxed.

Now the superior court judge is under investigation for the secret payments, which commissioners say were just one example of how Blitch usurped control of the county budget by holding back money from court fines and fees and dictating how it was spent.

“At one point I did ask him if he could do that,” said John Strickland, chairman of the commissioners. “He said he didn’t know if he could legally do it, but he’d do it anyway.”

Commissioners reported Blitch to authorities last month, and FBI agents soon searched the judge’s office in Homerville. A federal prosecutor subpoenaed records related to the payments for a grand jury investigation.

The judge ordered payments for the five employees after commissioners voted in 2001 to end the monthly stipends paid to workers who supervised misdemeanor probationers in addition to their regular duties. Instead, the commission hired a private contractor to handle probation cases.

Blitch also signed 21 court orders since 1990 dictating more than $208,000 in spending — mostly for the courthouse and sheriff’s department, according to county records reviewed by The Associated Press.

“If I understand the law, judges do not have the authority to do that,” said Jim Grubiak, the staff attorney for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “It shouldn’t happen at all. If it happens, it’s under the radar.”

The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Middle District of Georgia, declined to comment on the subpoenas and the raid on Blitch’s office.

Blitch and his attorney, Robert Willis of Jacksonville, Fla., also declined to comment.

Described as 'a good man'
Blitch, 73, became one of the most powerful politicians in the county after growing up in a prominent family. His father, Erwin Blitch, owned substantial timber acreage and a pharmacy near the courthouse in Homerville, about 210 miles southeast of Atlanta.

The judge’s mother, Iris Faircloth Blitch, was a Democratic Party activist who won election to the U.S. House in 1954, becoming the first Georgia congresswoman elected to serve a full term.

Blitch continued the family political tradition when he was sworn in as a judge in 1980. His wife, former state Sen. Peg Blitch, served in the Legislature from 1991 to 2004.

“Basically, he’s a good man,” said Linda Peterson, a Clinch County magistrate judge. “If he did anything, he didn’t do it to hurt anybody.”

Between 1990 and 2005, Blitch ordered the county to spend $148,400 on courthouse improvements such as remodeling, roof repairs, a jury room air conditioner and a new copy machine.

In 2005, Sheriff Winston Peterson got a new patrol car through Blitch after county commissioners denied him the money.

Public officials “would go to the judge and circumvent us,” said Barry Hart, vice chairman of the Clinch County Commission. “It’s making him look like he was Santa Claus, giving something to somebody.”

'You can smell it'
Even Homerville City Hall got a little money — $665 for carpet cleaning. A receipt noted the cleaning was payback for temporary “use of building for court.”

The Blitch family has been targeted by federal authorities before. When a 1996 fire destroyed the Homerville Ford dealership owned by Blitch’s wife and their son, Brett Blitch, investigators suspected arson.

A federal jury in 1999 convicted Brett Blitch of hiring someone to set fire to the car lot so he could collect insurance money. He served five years in prison and was released in 2004.

Before his son’s arrest, the elder Blitch said he felt authorities were after him because of his elected position.

“Deep down, they want a judge,” Blitch told the Georgia Times-Union in 1998. “You can smell it on them.”