DA, grand jury claim Atmore News publisher negligent, corrupt, immoral
By Atmore News Staff
When District Attorney Steve Billy bragged during the October 12 meeting of the county school board that he “(doesn’t) control much, but (does) control the grand jury of this county,” a lot of people took it as an idle boast. Now they don’t.
The county grand jury continued to serve as the DA’s weapon of choice last week in his legal assault on Atmore News Publisher and Co-owner Sherry Digmon.
The county’s top prosecutor delivered the second and third blows of a “1-2-3 punch” by arresting Digmon, 72, who represents District 6 on the Escambia County Board of Education, for the second time in less than a week, then serving notice two days later that he aims to have her removed from office.
The latest legal move by the district attorney, issuance of a “Report and Information of Impeachment and Prayer of Removal from Office,” was served on the local journalist Friday, November 3. The three-count document was issued by the grand jury and signed by Billy.
Count 1 of the report charges Willful Neglect of Office; Count 2 charges Corruption in Office; Count 3 charges that the BOE member committed a “Crime of Moral Turpitude.”
The website of Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute includes that in a legal sense, the term moral turpitude is used to describe “wicked, deviant behavior constituting an immoral, unethical, or unjust departure from ordinary social standards such that it would shock a community.”
According to the impeachment report, Digmon — one of four BOE members who voted against renewal of Superintendent of Education Michele McClung’s contract — “has committed willful acts of misconduct and/or corruption that she should be impeached and removed from office.”
At the October 12 BOE meeting, Digmon explained her vote against McClung by saying it was based primarily on numerous concerns voiced by educators and other school system employees over McClung’s management of the system.
The grand jury report includes that the BOE member’s explanation “clearly reflected her lack of concern for the children …”
The report concludes: “It is our opinion that her conduct affects the dignity of the office and her ability to effectively discharge her duties for the benefit or best interest of the students or the school system as a whole and she should, therefore be impeached and removed from office.”
The second attack on Digmon came when the grand jury handed up a two-count indictment charging her with an ethics violation that arose from advertisements purchased by the school board for a publication of which Digmon is part owner.
She was indicted for violating her oath of office by soliciting advertisements from the school board or school system for special-occasion ads, such as those in Back to School, Football, Graduation and other supplemental sections. Such ads have been placed by the board in all or most local newspapers as a general practice for years.
The grand jury report claims the newspaper owner “turned against” the school superintendent when McClung brought her concerns over the payments to the district attorney.
The grand jury and DA declared that “McClung had previously questioned the payments to Digmon’s business … that Digmon turned against McClung because she questioned payments … and that she [Digmon] based any subsequent decisions out of spite for McClung and not for the children or the best interest of the school system as a whole.”
However, according to a story published in the November 2 edition of The Tri-City Ledger, the DA said the indictment had nothing to do with the recent vote to not renew McClung’s contract.
Billy reportedly told the Flomaton newspaper the legal action was the result of a probe that “has been an on-going investigation long before the vote on McClung’s contract was up for renewal and even before she was named superintendent.”
The Atmore News publisher, accompanied by Brewton Attorney Earnie White, surrendered to the county sheriff Wednesday, November 1, at the Escambia County Detention Center. She had a second mug shot taken and was required to post a $100,000 property bond to secure her release.
The first action against Digmon came October 27, when she and Atmore News reporter Don Fletcher, 69, were arrested on warrants charging that an October 25 story about an investigation into possible misuse of federal COVID relief funds was a revelation of grand jury secrets. Fletcher wrote the story; Digmon gave final approval.
White, who is representing both Digmon and Fletcher in that matter, said in an interview with Al.com published last week that the DA is known to “target people he has a problem with.” White said there is no doubt the criminal charges against Digmon were related to the non-renewal of McClung’s contract.
“(The District Attorney) was pulling for her (the superintendent’s contract) to be renewed,” White told the online media outlet. “He went to the board of education and talked on behalf of the superintendent and, when (the board voted against renewal) he apparently took offense to that and hit us up with these charges.”
School system payroll and insurance bookkeeper and former Flomaton Town Clerk Veronica “Ashley” Fore, 47, is accused of providing part of the information on which the news story was based. Fore was also arrested October 27 on the same charge as the two journalists.
Digmon was in sheriff’s custody for about five hours, Fletcher six. Each was released after separate $10,000 surety bonds were posted on their respective behalf. Fore was held for less than half an hour and was released after she was reportedly allowed to post a $10,000 property or signature bond.
No local judges
Digmon and Fletcher have each requested a preliminary hearing. When such a hearing is conducted, it won’t be in front of a local judge.
According to an Order of Recusal signed November 1 by each, the county’s two circuit judges, Jeffrey A. White and Jeffrey Todd Stearns, as well as District Judge Eric Coale, have recused themselves from hearing the case due to each’s “prior professional relationships” with the DA and the defendants.
According to another Order of Recusal, all three have also refused to hear any cases that might arise from Digmon’s indictments, each jurist citing his “prior professional relationships with certain of the parties and social friendships therewith.”
MerriamWebster.com defines recusal as the act of removing (oneself) from participation (in a legal matter) to avoid a conflict of interest.
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker issued an order naming Retired Autauga County Circuit Judge Ben Fuller to preside over any hearings related solely to the charges against Digmon.
No judge had been appointed by Tuesday’s press deadline to hear the criminal case that arose from publication of the news story, nor had a date been announced for any preliminary or other hearings on matters in which Digmon is the only defendant.