High-ranking sheriff’s employee not off hook yet

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, November 7, 2018

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — Complaints against a member of the Sumter County Sheriff’s command staff could result in criminal charges.
Maj. Ralph Stuart, head of investigations for the Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith, is accused of inappropriate conduct in a courtroom on Oct. 18 at the Sumter County Courthouse. Two employees of the Southwest District Attorney’s Office complained to their employer, District Attorney Lewis Lamb, that Stuart had inappropriately touched them while in the courtroom. The male employee claims Stuart slapped him on his left buttock, while the female claims Stuart repeatedly touched her hair and neck even while she attempted repeatedly to bat him away. Both incidents were recorded on a security camera inside the courtroom.
Lamb took the complaints to the sheriff on Oct. 22 and Chief Deputy Col. Eric Bryant started an investigation. The Times-Recorder has reviewed the case file under the Georgia Open Meetings and Records Act.
The female’s statement says that Stuart sat behind her in the courtroom during a trial, and asked her questions about her identity and why she was there. She told Stuart it was none of his business. He later stood up and started to “play” with the female’s hair and touch her neck where she has a tattoo. She said in her statement that he poked her in the neck and grabbed her hair and lifted it all the way up at one point. The video footage from the security camera shows the woman flailing her arms in an attempt to get Stuart to stop. The footage also shows Stuart touching the young man’s left buttock.
The male complainant told sheriff’s authorities that he first wanted the matter handled in house but later decided to file a formal complaint because Stuart had repeatedly called his mother at home and work over the three days following the courtroom incident.
Following the investigation, the sheriff’s office determined that Stuart’s behavior was a violation of the department’s Code of Conduct and deemed his actions “unbecoming.” Stuart was placed on two weeks suspension without pay. He has also been placed on three months probation and is required to attend a training class related to professionalism.
The District Attorney, Lamb, told the Times-Recorder that his office has a conflict of interest in the case and cannot investigate the incidents in the courtroom or decide whether or not to prosecute Stuart. Lamb said he had spoken with the chief of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Monday morning and had received “explicit instructions” of what he should do next. Lamb said he would write a letter to the sheriff, explaining the allegations. He said if the Sheriff’s Office chooses to obtain warrants for Stuart, then the case can be referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. At that point, Lamb said, he will recuse himself and his office from the case, and will request a conflict prosecutor.
This is not the first time Stuart’s conduct has been questioned. His comments on Facebook came under scrutiny early this year when he referred to a female as a euphemism for a female body part. After an internal review, Stuart was deemed in violation of the sheriff office’s social media policy and was reprimanded.
Stuart has been employed with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office since July 2003.