Good riddance, Mr. McDade

David McDade (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
David McDade (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Longtime Douglas County, Ga., District Attorney David McDade is retiring. And Douglas County is better off for that.

Back in 2007, McDade was the subject of one of the more unusual ledes about a public officials in some time. It came from USA Today:

District Attorney David McDade has handed out some 35 copies of a video of teenagers having sex at a party.

And it’s true. McDade was the prosecutor in the Genarlow Wilson case. Wilson, you may remember, was initially charged with raping a 17-year-old at a party, plus another count of aggravated child molestation for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old at the same party. There was a video of both incidents. A jury acquitted Wilson of the rape but convicted him of the aggravated child molestation. Though the oral sex was consensual, that didn’t matter. Wilson was 17, the girl was 15. The case drew national attention because of the penalty: Wilson was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.

Odder still, the “aggravated” nature of the charge was because this was oral sex. Had the two had sexual intercourse, Wilson could have been charged with only a misdemeanor. (Up until just 16 years ago, married couples could face 20 years in prison for engaging in oral sex in Georgia.) Moreover, by the time Wilson’s case was up for appeal, the Georgia legislature had already changed the law. A teen in Wilson’s position by then (and now) could only be charged with a misdemeanor. But the legislature declined to apply the new law retroactively.

Though the video of Wilson’s sex with the 17-year-old is what convinced the jury to acquit him, McDade thought the video was damning. And so as public outrage over Wilson’s sentence grew in 2007, McDade began showing and distributing the video to anyone who wanted to see it, including lawmakers, press and talk show host Neil Boortz. He claimed he was obligated by Georgia open records law to release it, though that’s far from clear. As Georgia U.S. Attorney David Nahmias pointed out at the time, McDade was basically distributing child pornography. And there’s no exception to the child porn laws that says prosecutors may distribute child pornography if they’re trying to salvage their reputations. (Under the federal Adam Walsh Act, even defense attorneys are generally restricted from seeing the evidence against their clients in child porn cases.)

And it had an impact: After viewing the tape, Georgia State Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson successfully persuaded the legislature to refuse to make the new oral sex law retroactive so it would have included Wilson.

McDade’s retirement comes shortly after revelations about other abuses of office. A local TV report found that McDade had given his office manager an SUV for personal use, used seized drug funds to take her and her sister to conferences across the country and also used seized funds to give her daughter a paid internship and to pay her $90,000 for transcribing interviews, pay that was in addition to her regular salary and well above the market rate for transcriptions services. He also apparently failed to withhold taxes on that pay.

McDade’s forfeiture woes are just of a broader series of asset forfeiture abuses around the state. Fulton County DA Paul Howard, for example, spent $6,000 in forfeiture money on a security system for his private home. He gave another $6,000 to an advocacy group that then put him in its “Hall of Fame.” Though Georgia law requires all police agencies to issue annual forfeiture reports, just 58 of the 628 police departments in the state bothered to do so in 2011. Despite all of this, the state legislature has been unable to pass a reform bill, thanks to opposition from law enforcement groups — particularly the Georgia Sheriffs Association. The group worried that the bill to prevent corruption, require better reporting of forfeiture funds, and protect innocent property owners could “demoralize the law enforcement community.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has just wrapped up its investigation of all of this and apparently struck a deal with McDade. Under the “non-prosecution agreement,” McDade will pay $4,000 to the county, and the investigation itself will be sealed. Prosecutors under investigation by grand juries are allowed to appear to defend themselves (a benefit of public service, I guess). Some news reports have implied that the decision not to prosecute McDade may have been influenced by his ill health, which may have prevented him from taking advantage of that perk.

McDade has said in the press that his retirement is because of health issues and has nothing to do with the investigation. Perhaps. But because the details of the investigation have been kept under wraps, we’ll never know what he was actually accused of doing.

I suppose that will save McDade some public embarrassment. That’s a courtesy McDade never bothered to extend to Genarlow Wilson or to the women with whom Wilson had sex. Call it another privilege of public office.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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