Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Local Sheriff Prosecuted for Diverting FEMA Truck

McGee plea is delayed

Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee was scheduled to plead guilty today to a federal misdemeanor charge involving a dispute over two trucks of ice for Hurricane Katrina victims following the storm.

However, late Thursday, the plea hearing was unexpectedly delayed indefinitely.

McGee, 53, was expected to plead guilty to a charge of interfering with, intimidating and impeding a federal officer, a charge dating to a Sept. 4 dispute.

McGee said he sent the trucks to Brooklyn and Petal after trying for more than five hours to get Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to get the ice to hurricane relief distribution sites.

"I didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing other than it was outside the protocol," McGee said earlier Thursday before today's hearing was delayed. "This is more an indictment of the federal government than of me. This is a failure of the process."

An agreement for McGee to plead guilty came after months of talks between the sheriff, U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton and McGee's attorney, Jim Dukes. The plea will not prevent him from keeping his position as sheriff or from running for election in the future, he said.

"I think it's pretty cheesy," said Jim McNeill, a Lamar County resident who works in Forrest County. "I think it's wrong for them to try to punish a person who's trying to do the right thing, trying to help people."

McGee's decision to plead guilty prevents prosecution of three deputies who were with him at the FEMA staging site at Camp Shelby. He would not identify the deputies.

"I was told that I could either plead to this misdemeanor or I and my deputies would be indicted on felony charges," McGee said. "I've asked the government on three separate occasions to indict me and leave the deputies out of it because they were only acting at my direction."

Lampton's background in the National Guard - he is a retired judge advocate - and political pressure are factors in the case, McGee said.

"I feel like he's probably getting some pressure from the Mississippi National Guard," McGee said. "He told me the governor personally demanded I be prosecuted for this."

A spokesman for Lampton said he was in a meeting about FEMA Thursday and not available.

Pete Smith, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, had no immediate comment on the accusation. A National Guard spokesman in Jackson said only Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross, the state adjutant general, could comment on the incident and Cross was unavailable Thursday afternoon.

"I think it's totally wrong to charge the sheriff," said Terry Steed, executive director of the Forrest County Emergency Management District. "Right, wrong or indifferent, people were in need. He made no personal gain from anything he did; he was trying to help people. That's what we all were trying to do."

McGee provided the following account of the ice incident:

  • Steed's office notified him at about 6:30 a.m. Sept. 4 that five trucks of ice and five of water were lost between Jackson and Hattiesburg and weren't expected to arrive that day.
  • About 7 a.m., emergency management personnel told McGee of the FEMA staging area and suggested ice might be available there.
  • McGee sent a deputy to Camp Shelby who returned with the message that FEMA officials there couldn't release the ice but had provided a phone number of someone who might be able to.

    "I called that phone number periodically for the next five hours and never got an answer," McGee said.

  • After 1 p.m., McGee and three deputies went to Camp Shelby. The FEMA staging area director reported he had not gotten authority to release two trucks of ice. In response to questions from McGee, he said two trucks which were idling were filled with ice and were not assigned to a destination.

    "I told him I had tried for four or five hours to get somebody at that number," McGee said. "He kind of smirked and said, 'To be truthful, sheriff, there's nobody at that number who could release it.' "

  • The drivers of the ice trucks were willing to follow deputies to the distribution sites in Petal and Brooklyn.

    "As we started out of the staging area, a National Guardsman jumped on the side of the lead truck, either trying to get the keys or pull the driver out," McGee said.

  • When the soldier refused to get off the truck, he was handcuffed, placed in a patrol car and driven to the sheriff's office where he was cited for interfering with an officer and released.

    Capt. Michael Bryant, the National Guard officer involved, would not comment Thursday.

    "I can't speak to anything about that, I'm not allowed to," he said.

    Brooklyn resident Pamela Anderson picked up ice daily from the distribution site at Forrest County Agricultural High School. She questioned the rationale for charging McGee.

    "I don't think it's fair," she said. "They needed ice down here."

  • Originally published February 24, 2006

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