The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author.
After writing about government officials for more than a decade, I’ve learned to keep my expectations low. I try not to let their behavior surprise me and I keep at the forefront the idea that you should never underestimate the foolishness of government officials in groups.
But this past week, Effingham County asked everyone to hold its proverbial beers while the county made the absolute mockery out of the concept of ‘letting the legal system work itself out.’
On Wednesday, Effingham County Commissioner Reggie Loper was arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on charges of Child Molestation, a felony, and Sexual Battery, a misdemeanor. The investigation is one that had been ongoing since January of this year after a minor alleged Loper committed a host of acts against her over the course of five years.
Loper was booked into the Effingham County Jail around 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday and after lunch, the county manager, Tim Callanan, issued a statement to county employees on behalf of the entire Board of Commissioners.
“I wanted to inform each of you of the news that has transpired today. District 4 Commissioner Reggie Loper was arrested this morning by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. The county has no further information at this time and we encourage everyone allow [sic] the legal process to take its course and that individuals are deemed innocent until proven guilty under our constitution.
The following is the statement issued by Effingham County and the Board of Commissioners:
“The Effingham County Board of Commissioners is aware of the allegations against Mr. Loper. He has served the county and his constituents well for nearly two decades and we pray for him and his family as they deal with this situation.”
We encourage you to forward any media requests to the County Public Information Coordinator, Mark Latsinger. His contact information is mLatsinger@effinghamcounty.org 912-754-2111.
While it’s understandable why Callanan would jump to prayer as the canned response, given his own history with the legal system and public scrutiny, I cannot, for the life of me, grasp the rest of it. It is a gross and public display of the unwavering loyalty elected officials develop when they’ve served together for too long.
Let’s go line by line.
For starters, by 2:00 p.m. when the email went out to employees, the county absolutely did have more information. They had the list of charges, which included serious sexual offenses against a minor. I know this because at 11:15 a.m., they were listed on the Sheriff’s Office jail booking website for all to see. By 11:30 a.m., I had published an article about Loper’s arrest, which included the charges, and shortly thereafter, the news began breaking across other outlets.
Second, a civil action, which included a temporary protective order against Loper, was filed in Effingham County Superior Court back in January. The records are all public for anyone to see. While the general public may not have made an effort to check the court records on their elected officials, it’s offensive that Callanan thinks the general public is dumb enough to believe Loper made no mention of the ongoing issues to his colleagues. After all, they had just been together the night before at the county commission meeting. We’re all supposed to believe that they were completely blindsided by this information but are willing to offer their prayers and support?
Third, had Callanan and the commissioners mentioned the charges in the email, they wouldn’t have had to make the unpopular move to bloviate about Loper serving the county well for years. Why? Because it is completely irrelevant to what happened. The allegations involve sexual misconduct against a child. The allegations have nothing to do with Loper’s tenure as a commissioner. It wouldn’t matter if he lobbied for lower taxes, advocated for more resources first responders, had excellent constituent services, and spent his weekends building new roads around the county himself (he’s done none of these things, by the way). If he is, indeed, guilty, his twenty years in office do not cancel out his bad acts. If he is not guilty, it isn’t because he’s a commissioner.
The only appropriate response to the arrest of the commissioner, if one had to be given at all, was “We are aware of the arrest of Commissioner Loper and will withhold further comment until the legal system plays out.”
That isn’t even rocket science. It’s Public Relations 101.
Instead, Callanan and the commissioners attempted to soften the blow to county employees and the general public by excluding what Loper was charged with and offering a ‘gentle reminder’ that he’s done a good job. Or, the county manager employed by Loper and his colleagues in decision making think he’s done a good job, rather. If you’d like to know why people think there’s a ‘good ol’ boy system’ working behind the scenes, it’s because of things like this.
I don’t believe in trials in the court of public opinion and the presumption of innocence is a powerful foundation of our justice system. But when the option to say nothing would keep your hands clean, it’s borderline misconduct to say anything else. The public statement released by commissioners transcended neutrality and said everything but ‘we’re supporting him no matter what.’ I assure you, that’s a gamble.
And in the interest of not letting Commissioner Loper off the hook, there’s one more element to consider here. While he has every right to stay in his position as commissioner at this time, most reasonable people are questioning why he would desire to do so. If you’ve ever seen the havoc the justice system can wreak on the family of an accused person, you know that it’s an ugly and lengthy process. If the prayers for him and his family are warranted, why stay in office? Why send the message to the public that staying in public office is more important than sorting out family affairs and criminal charges that carry a sentence of up to twenty years in prison?
If he is guilty, he should do what’s best for his family and shield them from the drama as much as possible.
If he’s not guilty, he should do what’s best for his family and shield them from the drama as much as possible.
Why is elected office more sacred than that?