11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal, has uncovered bribery allegations connected to a sitting Georgia district attorney already under indictment for the same crime.
The accusations are that Paulding County District Attorney Dick Donovan accepted a bribe in 2013 to reduce charges against two people connected to a shooting.
According to court records in a recently closed criminal case file, multiple law enforcement officials requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the claims.
Earlier this year, state investigators closed the case without filing charges, but video evidence in the case point to claims of a quid pro quo between the district attorney and the owner of a Paulding County car dealership.
In the case file, obtained through a public records request, includes a one minute, 46 second video of Barry Lathe Poole Jr, a former salesperson who worked at the Hardy Automotive Dealership in Dallas, Georgia.
According to Poole, he sold Donovan a vehicle in 2012. During the transaction, Poole said he witnessed his boss, president of Hardy Automotive, Johnny Hardy, ask the D.A. to reduce pending charges against two family members arrested for a shooting.
“[Johnny] turned around, put his hands on his shoulders actually, he said, ‘Dick, are you going to be able to help us out?” Poole said he heard Hardy say to Donovan. “I heard Mr. Donovan tell Johnny, ’Johnny, don’t worry about it. I’m doing all I can do.”
Poole said he heard Hardy respond with a promise.
“’You just do what you got to do… we appreciate it…you know you’ll be taken care of,” Poole said he heard Hardy mention to the D.A.
In 2012, deputies with the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office arrested Brenda Hillhouse, the dealership president’s sister, and Mark Campbell, her son-in-law.
According to the incident report, Hillhouse and Campbell blocked a truck with four people inside from leaving a driveway parked in Hiram, assaulted them, and then shot at their vehicle.
Jason Benson was one of four victims inside the truck.
“We started backing up into the drive way and as we was coming across the driveway to jump this curve here, Brenda starts hollering, ‘Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em and Mark starts shooting at the vehicle,’” Benson said.
At least one bullet struck a back tire. According to the report, Hillhouse and Campbell were there to catch Benson having an affair. At the time, Benson was married to Hillhouse’s daughter.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if they were going to shoot us or if they were just trying to scare us,” Benson explained.
The evening of the arrest, Benson said he got two phone calls from the sheriff’s department asking him to reconsider filing charges. Benson declined. “I said the only reason I’m getting a call is because of who it is,” Benson said.
To Jason who they are was relevant. Paulding County has purchased more than $10 million in vehicles and parts from Hardy family dealerships since 2012. That includes vehicles purchased for the district attorney's office.
"I said if it was us or anyone else shooting at the Hardy family, no one would be getting a call,” Benson said.
According to court records obtained by The Reveal, Donovan personally met with Hillhouse and Campbell about a week after the shooting. A short time later, one of Donovan’s investigators made a surprise visit to Benson’s work asking him to sign a document declining prosecution.
“I asked them what this was, I never heard of this,” Benson exclaimed. “I said, why would no one call me and tell me what’s going on.”
In April 2012, a grand jury indicted Hillhouse and Campbell on multiple felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon. But, instead of taking them to trial, the district attorney ignored the grand jury’s recommendations.
The final outcome - felonies reduced were to misdemeanors. Hillhouse and Campbell received 12 months of probation and paid a $1,000 fine each.
Benson believes justice was not served.
“They were doing everything they could to sweep those charges underneath the rug without having to go to court," he said.
Benson immediately called for an outside investigation, alleging the Hardy family bribed Donovan to reduce the charges.
According to court records, a former Georgia attorney general, a Coweta County District Attorney and a judge, all asked the GBI to look into Benson’s claims.
Part of the evidence submitted to the state included the video of Poole, the salesman who said he witnessed the dealership’s president ask the D.A. about the shooting.
“When I heard that, I knew they were talking about the whole thing with Mark and Brenda,” Poole said in the video.
► WATCH | Video deposition from Poole
Hillhouse, Campbell and the Hardy family all declined interview requests. Donovan turned down the interview request as well, but Benson did confront the district attorney about his concerns in a secret audio recording obtained from the closed case file.
“Why would you choose not to prosecute on the grand jury indictments?” Benson said to Donovan in the audio recording. “I don’t really know if I can answer that or should answer that,” Donovan replied.
Benson pressed the D.A. again. “I don’t want any strings pulled. I don’t to see anything done because of who they are. It has happened in this case," Benson said.
"Well, it ain’t gonna happen in this case. I guarantee you. I’ve already told you that and I’ll tell you again, it has nothing to do with who they are,” Donovan said in response.
Attorney Lawrence Zimmerman represents Donovan. In an email sent to The Reveal, Zimmerman said there is no merit to the bribery charges.
“In response to your potential story about my client regarding Jason Benson and a bribe, my client absolutely denies any wrongdoing whatsoever,” said Zimmerman. “Any allegations of Mr. Donovan receiving a bribe from anyone at all is spurious.”
This past April, nearly 8 years after the GBI was asked to investigate, the agency closed the case. No charges were filed against Donovan or anyone involving the Hardy family.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT, BRIBERY:
While the D.A. won’t face charges in this case, this past February, a grand jury did indict him on multiple crimes involving an unrelated case. One of the charges includes bribery, for allegedly attempting to coerce a municipal prosecutor to drop shoplifting charges for a woman he was later accused of sexually harassing at work.
“I feel that is right up his alley,” said Benson. “He feels like he’s above the law.”
Donovan’s attorney provided The Reveal with a polygraph test the D.A. participated in this past May. When the D.A. was asked whether he accepted any bribe from the Hardy family, he answered "No” and the results said he was not lying.
Benson is no stranger to the criminal justice system himself. In 2013, a grand jury indicted him on more than a dozen felonies. Many were related to allegations of assaulting women.
Donovan’s office secured the original charges. Nearly 10 years later, all of Benson’s charges were dropped.
Donovan has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the February indictment. No trial date has been scheduled.
One week after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced the indictment against the 10-year district attorney, Governor Kemp announced Donovan's suspension with pay.
The executive order said the district attorney is "suspended from office immediately and without further action pending the final disposition of the case or until the expiration of his term of office, whichever occurs first."
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.