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Cases dismissed

Judge grants AG’s requests

Atmore News Staff

When veteran prosecutor Thomas Govan of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office made his initial appearance April 10 in Escambia County Circuit Court as head of the state’s pursuit of charges against four people accused of revealing grand jury secrets, he asked Judge Ben Fuller for 30 days to familiarize himself with the cases.
Govan, who is chief of the AG’s Criminal Trials Division, apparently needed only about a third of that.
It took him less than nine days to determine that the state’s prosecution of Atmore News publisher and co-owner Sherry Digmon, reporter Don Fletcher, school system bookkeeper Ashley Fore and county school board vice-president Cindy Jackson, should be dropped.
Judge Ben Fuller, who said during the April 10 hearing that the matter had dragged on long enough, accepted the Assistant Attorney General’s decision a few hours later. The retired 19th Judicial Circuit judge told Govan and defense attorneys during that hearing that the defendants should be acquitted or convicted, or the charges against them should be dismissed.
In separate orders of dismissal issued to each defendant, Fuller — appointed by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Parker to preside over the cases after local judges Jeff White, Todd Stearns and Eric Coale recused themselves — wrote to each defendant: “On motion of the State, this case is hereby dismissed and, said dismissal is with prejudice.”
According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, dismissal with prejudice occurs when “a court dismisses a claim, and the plaintiff is barred from bringing that claim in another court.”
DA Steve Billy initially had Digmon, Fletcher and Fore arrested October 27, two days after the publication date of a news article reporting that the DA and a county grand jury were investigating the school system’s possible misappropriation of federal COVID relief funds.
The story was based on documents leaked to the weekly newspaper.
The DA, who eventually recused himself from further involvement in the cases just as the proceedings began to show some forward motion, later had Jackson arrested on the same charge he levied against the other three.
After using legal maneuvers to deny the defendants a preliminary hearing and to delay the proceedings against them, Billy ended his participation in the cases due to “professional and personal conflicts.” That’s when Attorney General Steve Marshall appointed Govan to step in.
Neither Marshall nor Govan have commented publicly on the dismissals, which bring to a close that part of Billy’s legal assault on Digmon, one of four BOE members who voted against a new contract for former school superintendent Michele McClung after the DA had spoken on her behalf prior to the vote.
The DA’s remarks that day included that any school board member who voted against a new contract for McClung would be violating his or her respective oath of office.
He then brought ethics charges against Digmon, claiming her solicitation of BOE advertisements in Atmore News and “atmore” magazine was successful only because she was on the board.
According to an Alabama Ethics Commission opinion, the business relationship and ad solicitation were technically legal, but advised that someone other than Digmon should solicit the ads. Digmon and her staff adopted that practice immediately.
Billy noted at the school board meeting at which the superintendent’s contract extension was rejected that, “I don’t control much, but I do control the grand jury of Escambia County.” He used that control to generate a “Report and Information of Impeachment and Prayer of Removal from Office” against her in an effort to get her off the school board.
That legal action was also dismissed after Billy filed just prior to his recusal — and Fuller granted — a motion requesting such a move.
The only proceeding that has not been formally dismissed is the ethics charge against Digmon, despite an Al.com story that said AlaCourt postings indicate a dismissal has been granted in that matter.
Jackson, who reportedly still has business pending before First Judicial Circuit Judge Charles R. Montgomery (assigned by Chief Justice Parker to hear her case), declined comment.
Efforts to reach Fore or her attorney, Danny White, for comment were unsuccessful by Tuesday’s press deadline. Interestingly, despite the felony charge filed against her, Fore was never indicted.
At press time Tuesday, Digmon had received the Order of Dismissal from the judge on the grand jury secrets case, but had not received the Order on the ethics charges. However, those charges were included in the AG’s motion to dismiss.