Valdosta Daily Times

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August 26, 2011

Valdosta mayor pleads guilty to felony

VALDOSTA — Valdosta Mayor John J. Fretti entered a guilty plea Friday morning stemming from an investigation into his being doubly reimbursed by the city and state for the same trips.

At approximately 9:45 a.m. Friday, Fretti entered a guilty plea in Lowndes County Superior Court to felony false statement, but did not step down as Valdosta’s mayor.

Fretti knowingly signed Georgia Department of Community Affairs vouchers between June 3, 2009, and June 2, 2010, according to Southern District Attorney David Miller, and also returned to Valdosta and claimed mileage reimbursement from the city for the same trips.

Additionally during these trips, he accepted the $105 per diem from DCA, while charging all of his lodging and food expenses to the city.

Without the presence of family members, Fretti sat in the courtroom at the Lowndes County Administrative and Judicial Complex with Carol Sherwood as his attorney. He appeared calm, making small talk with other individuals before Southern Circuit Chief Judge Harry J. Altman began court.

Fretti waived his right to grand jury indictment and a jury trial and entered his guilty plea under the U.S. Supreme Court case of North Carolina vs. Alford, which is similar to the nolo contendre plea, in which the defendant admits the state has sufficient evidence for a conviction but does not admit personal guilt.

“This was real important to John and me,”

Sherwood told The Times. “He continues to maintain his innocence even though he entered a guilty plea.”

Altman went through various procedural questions with Fretti, ensuring that any plea was given without being under the influence of drugs and was on his own behalf. Certain questions triggered extended pauses of hesitation from Fretti.

“In a statement to the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation), the Mayor said that at the June 3, 2009, DCA meeting, a DCA staffer noticed that he had not written down mileage on his request, and inquired whether he drove a city vehicle,” explained Miller during the presentation of evidence. “He told her no, that he drove his personal vehicle. She asked him why he did not claim the mileage and he told her that he did not know, when in fact, he knew that she had been claiming mileage for the DCA trips for him, and she did so using Mapquest for the mileage.”

Miller stated that Valdosta City Manager Larry Hanson, Mayor Pro-Tem Alvin Payton, former Council member-at-large John Eunice and former council member Willie Head told GBI detectives that they had not been informed of any of the other travel-expense reimbursements by Fretti. City officials also told investigators that they would have never approved City of Valdosta reimbursements had they known the full details.

The charge carries a sentence of one to five years in prison and a fine of approximately $1,000. DA David Miller requested that the sentence include full restitution to the City of Valdosta in the amount of $4,194.

Altman asked Fretti if he had received any indication from his attorney, the district attorney or other parties about what his sentence will be. Fretti replied he had not.

“You understand that this court and this court alone will impose a sentence to you,” said Altman. Fretti stated that he understood.

The judge will proceed with a pre-sentence investigation in order to determine an appropriate sentence for the crimes. At any time before the sentence is pronounced, Fretti can withdraw his plea in order to exercise his right to a fair trial.

Altman also approved a consideration to allow Fretti to be sentenced under the Georgia First Offenders Act, which would enable the mayor to wipe his criminal record clean upon completion of probation and sentencing requirements. Judication of guilt would also be postponed until the end of the sentence term, provided Fretti upholds punishment conditions.

Neither Roy E. Taylor Sr., or his attorney J. Holder Smith were present at court. Both men were responsible for submitting both the ethics complaint and criminal charges against the mayor earlier this year.

“On Aug. 15, a mere 11 days ago, Mayor Fretti defended himself at the Board of Ethics inquiry and at that time he vehemently and indignantly claimed his innocence of any ethical violations,” said Smith. “He has made a mockery of good and honest government and a mockery of the code of ethics process.”

Smith cited Section III, Subsection B, Paragraph 6 of the City Ethics ordinance as a clear-cut violation by Fretti.

Whether Fretti will continue to finish the remainder of his term as Valdosta mayor is uncertain. Lauren Kane, Attorney General’s office communications director, said once an elected official has been convicted of a felony, that person is no longer eligible to hold office.

George Talley, city attorney, stated that his understanding is that once a public official has entered a plea, the District Attorney sends a certified copy to the Governor’s Investigating Committee. Within 15 days, the committee, which is comprised of the governor and two other Georgia mayors, would have the power to suspend the city official in question.

After the plea, Fretti surrendered at the Lowndes County Jail, where he was booked then released on his own recognizance.

After meeting with a probation officer, Fretti refused to make any comment to the press until after the sentencing hearing. Sentencing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, at Courtroom 5-A at the Lowndes County Judicial Complex.

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