GBI deleted records in Forsyth County ‘bribery scheme’

Before releasing documents to the public, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation deleted multiple pages from its 2003 probe into a state probation officer convicted of soliciting bribes. The deleted pages are a potential violation of Georgia’s Open Records laws.  

chris-cleveland-02182003
Cumming Probation Officer, Chris Cleveland, convicted of soliciting $2,500 bribes

According to an Aug. 24, 2003 Forsyth County News report, long-time Cumming Probation Officer, Christopher Orrin Cleveland, then 42, was convicted of soliciting $2,500 in bribes after a probationer under his supervision alerted authorities.

In response to an August 2016 open records request, GBI for the first time released Cleveland’s 248-page file.

A review of the file shows deleted pages that included two interviews conducted by its agents, and probation case notes on the man Cleveland solicited, Ryan Keith Whitt, who was a GBI confidential informant. Records show Cleveland knew Whitt worked with GBI but solicited bribes from him anyway. 

The open records request was filed to shed light on the law enforcement agencies that were investigating the unsolved murder of 11-year-old Levi Frady. 

LeviFrady CROPPED
Murder victim, Levi Frady, 11

Further, records show Cleveland sought double the amount for which he was convicted, and that he promised to reduce Whitt’s intensive probation to a non-reporting status.  

“Don’t worry … anything you and I do stays between you and me,” Cleveland tells Whitt in a recorded conversation, “…I said I keep you out of trouble. I ain’t tellin’ nobody f**kin’ s**t.” 

“All right,” said Whitt.

“Don’t tell you wife,” said Cleveland.

“I won’t tell, tell nobody,” said Whitt.

Records also reveal allegations that Cleveland solicited money from other probationers to pay for an abortion for a waitress with whom he had an affair; to make a dirty drug test “go away;” to keep one man on probation after he was arrested for DUI, and to release another man Cleveland had put in jail. At least two probationers were willing to testify in court. 

Cleveland’s colleagues told GBI agents he was known to “wheel and deal” and that he used probationers’ labor to make unauthorized improvements both at his home and at the Forsyth County sheriff’s office under the guise of community service hours, records show.

When and why was Whitt first arrested?

It was August 2000 when Forsyth Superior Court Judge, Richard Stan Gault, sentenced Whitt to five years probation and a $1,000 fine after he was arrested for possession of a sawed-off shotgun and simple assault, records show. 

Then in November 2001, Whitt tested positive for methamphetamine. GBI’s files do not indicate whether he was arrested or jailed. Regardless, seven months later in June 2002, he was arrested for possession of meth in Dawson County.  He was arrested again five months later in Forsyth County for possession of a firearm by a shotgunconvicted felon and tested positive for meth. Yet, the firearm possession charge was dropped, and Whitt avoided jail, records show. Instead, the court handed down his original five-year probation sentence and credited him for time served, effectively providing no additional penalties for possession of meth, meth use, or firearms possession, and leaving Whitt with 2.7 years of probation.

Whitt’s probation case notes, Exhibit 54, were deleted by GBI. Case notes that are part of a closed file are subject to disclosure under open records laws, according to an official at the Georgia Department of Corrections. 

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Records also show Whitt gave Cleveland a gun stock for his AR-15 rifle, which was later recovered during a search of Cleveland’s home along with $1,700 in marked bills. 

And although Whitt worked as a GBI confidential informant, he chose Dawson County Capt. Sam Duff to reveal details of the ‘bribery scheme’. It is unclear why. Had he already alerted GBI with no effect?

Alleged bribes: $400 for an abortion, $2,000 to clear a DUI, $400 for a clean drug test

After Cleveland’s arrest in February 2003, word quickly spread among north Georgia’s inmates and probationers. 

Rick Philips, a probationer under Cleveland’s care, told agents Cleveland solicited $400 from him to pay for an abortion for a waitress who worked at Rooster’s Cafe and with whom Cleveland allegedly had an affair. And that for $2,000, Cleveland would see that Phillips’ roommate did not get his probation revoked after he was arrested for a DUI. Philips stated he was willing to testify against Cleveland, records show. 

A second probationer, Jerry Stamey, who could not read or write well asked a fellow inmate, Alex Wasser, at the Forsyth County jail to write out his statement for GBI. In a three page letter, meticulously hand printed on lined paper, Stamey detailed his dealings with Cleveland. Stamey said Cleveland charged him $200 as a “processing fee” to transfer his probation back to Michigan, his home state. He allegedly paid Cleveland cash and was never given a receipt. He moved back to Michigan after Cleveland told him he would assist in helping him “get his probation cleared up with Georgia and serve the remainder of his probation sentence in the State of Michigan,” records show

But, Stamey was arrested and extradited back to Georgia when he went home. 

He later learned Cleveland never interceded on his behalf, and he still had a $1,400 revocation fee and an additional $1,400 extradition fee, which he tried to get credited through his Forsyth County attorney, Rafe Banks. 

In December 1999, David Semler was in the Forsyth jail on a theft by conversion charge. Cleveland allegedly met him in a hallway and told him it would cost $500 to get out of jail. Semler’s girlfriend, Connie Pauline Pierce, met Cleveland at the Cumming probation office and paid him $500. She was never issued a receipt, records show.  The charge was later dropped. 

Nine months later in October 2000, Semler was arrested for missing a probation appointment by 24-hours. Records show Cleveland had him arrested, and Semler then spent two weeks in jail.  The day after his release, he visited Cleveland at his Cumming office.

According to the report written by GBI Agent, Bobby D. McElwee, Semler went to his boss, Jimmy Long of Long Plumbing in Dawson County, and borrowed $500. 

“Semler attempted to pay Cleveland $200 of the borrowed money, but was told (by Cleveland) it would cost him an extra $500,” McElwee wrote. “He paid Cleveland ($700) in cash and received no receipt.” Semler was also willing to testify.  

A fourth probationer, William Brooks, told a GBI agent Cleveland could make his positive drug test “go away” for $400. The money was to be paid on Feb. 20, but Cleveland was arrested two days earlier, records show. 

GBI deleted records labelled “Exhibits 46, 54, 59” located in the section with other probationers’ interviews. It is unclear what the content of these records are; why GBI deleted them, and who authorized their removal.  

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 GBI interviews Cleveland’s co-workers 

Michelle Knox, a 17-year-veteran at Cleveland’s office, said Cleveland was not well respected.

“I do believe Chris Cleveland has a drinking problem and that his behavior is basically a ‘loose cannon,'” she told a GBI agent. “I know that several people have expressed thoughts that (he) might even be using drugs. (He) lies about everything, and I believe he would have sex with anything that walked …,” according to GBI records. 

Tina Cobb, who served as probation office secretary for seven years, was close to Cleveland and his wife, Lynn Cleveland.

“Ms. Cleveland confided in Ms. Cobb recently that she had suspicions that her husband was having a relationship with Erin Purder, another female probation officer employed at the Cumming probation office,” wrote GBI Agent J.K. Crook. “Ms. Cobb has no direct knowledge of the relationship. Ms. Cleveland made it known to Ms. Cobb that she was jealous of Erin because she was young and pretty,” records shows. 

Erin Purder had been a probation officer for about 18 months when Cleveland was arrested. She told an agent that when a person on intensive probation was reduced to standard level, they were assigned to her. Cleveland handled probationers at the intensive level, according to GBI records. 

“I generally drive home after work and do not socialize with other probation officers after work hours,” Purder said. “I am not aware of Chris Cleveland having any kind of drinking or drug problem.”

Accounting Clerk, Nina Moore, said she was shocked to learn Cleveland had been arrested. Ms. Moore has no direct or indirect knowledge that he was involved in any questionable or criminal activity, records show. 

‘Fudging on his timesheets’

Linda Wood Gilbert served 18 years as a probation officer III.

“Ms. Gilbert, in her own mind, thinks Mr. Cleveland is guilty of fudging on his time sheets at the office, claiming comp time that he has not worked, but nothing more than that,” writes GBI Agent J.K. Crook. “Ms. Gilbert cannot help but wonder now that Mr. Cleveland has been arrested, where he got the money to do all the remodeling work he had done on his house.”

GBI did not launch an investigation into allegations of Cleveland’s payroll fraud, acccording to Lisa Harris, GBI special agent-in-charge of legal services. 

Cleveland allegedly used probationers’ labor to make improvements at his home, including having trees cut down, new flooring, new kitchen countertops, and updates on a back porch, records show. 

Sherry Corn Mitchell, a level II probation officer, and a 28-year veteran of the system, often “squabbled” with Cleveland. Mitchell’s job is to make home visits, administer drug and alcohol tests, and makes recommendations to probationers.

“Ms. Mitchell advised she would not prepare a consent order for a probationer unless the probationer began exhibiting signs of trouble,” wrote Agent Crook. “A judge would have total control over signing a consent order based on the evidence provided, but judges will usually consent to a probation officer’s request because the judge develops a working relationship with the probation officer and trusts their judgement.” 

Mitchell also stated she had seen Cleveland driving the F.O.P (Fraternal Order of Police) car around town, according to GBI documents. 

Cleveland’s wife, Lynn Cleveland, worked at the F.O.P. office and also at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s office. She later told GBI Agent, John Cagle, who executed a search warrant at the couple’s home, that she had written a check to herself from the FOP account for $450. It is unclear from GBI’s records if the money was stolen or if Lynn Cleveland made a legitimate transaction. 

Probation Officer, Valerie Clark, was the Forsyth County community service coordinator at the time of Cleveland’s arrest. She told agents all community service work had to be approved by her, records show. 

“I do know that Richard Phillips put carpet in the warrant division office of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department where Chris Cleveland’s wife works,” Clark said. “This community service did not go through me … I also know of a Gary Studstill who was reduced from intensive probation to standard … Cleveland said Studstill had completed all of his community service work. “I had no knowledge of Studstill completing community service work.

“I would say that since I took over this job in January 2001, Chris Cleveland has probably done this to me at least thirty (30) times,” said Clark. 

Long-time probation officer, Ricky Sutton, a teammate of Cleveland’s for 17 years, told agents the community service work done at the sheriff’s office by Cleveland’s probationer “did not go through proper channels …”. 

Additionally,  records show that Cleveland’s boss, Chief Probation Officer, Steve Jackson, was treated differently than other office employees who were required to answer 11 questions from a written questionnaire.  Records show GBI Agent B.D. McElwee met with Jackson on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003, but only discussed the transfer of Whitt’s case to another county because Cleveland was in jail.

Cleveland denies allegations

GBI Agent McElwee questioned Cleveland soon after his February 2003 arrest.

“Chris, have you ever done this before with anybody else?” McElwee asked.

“Shit no … and why I did it time, I have no f**kin’ idea … I don’t think I did anything wrong … And, and don’t … f*ck it …”.

Eight days before Cleveland’s arrest, GBI recorded a call between Whitt and Cleveland where they chatted about how Whitt might get the money from his family and about Whitt’s father. 

“Your daddy shooting ya’ straight?” Cleveland asks.

“Yeah, … yeah cause you know daddy, very write [sic] or nothin, but he does have ….”.

“Oh yeah,” Cleveland confirms.

“A girlfriend.”

“… We all got p**sy on the side,” said Cleveland. “When I talked to your daddy he seemed so nice.

 Cleveland ‘s Plea Agreement 

Forsyth District Attorney, Penny Penn, told substitute Judge John Crosby that Cleveland’s actions gave all officers a black eye. 

“Here, Your Honor, the defendant is charged with bribery, which is a 20-year sentence, and it is a serious offense,” she said. “It was compounded here with the fact that the defendant, who was the one soliciting the money, was also the public official.

“By his actions, he not only puts a black eye on the others with whom he works who have taken the same oath (of office) … it calls into question the integrity of the whole system.”

Cleveland pleaded guilty to two counts of bribery (soliciting $5$00 and $2,000) and one count of violating his oath of office. He was sentenced under Georgia’s First Offenders Act and served one year in prison, six years on probation, paid a $2,000 fine and was to perform 120 hours of community service, records show.

What will Georgia’s new Attorney General do?

On Nov. 14, 2016, a complaint was filed against GBI with Attorney General, Chris Carr, for the missing documents.

chris-carr
Georgia’s newly appointed attorney general, Chris Carr

Carr was appointed as Georgia’s new attorney general by Gov. Nathan Deal after the departure by Sam Olens on Nov. 1.

“He is a leader with common sense, brilliant intellect, and a wide range of experiences at the global, federal and state levels,” according to a press release from Deal’s office. “That perspective will allow Chris to support and defend the laws of Georgia and the interests of our people.

Following is GBI’s 248 page file on Cleveland. Editor’s note: numbers inserted in the bottom right corner are for ease of reference. 

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