Varnell solicitor Bryan Rayburn has resigned, writing in an email to Mayor Tom Dickson and the City Council members dated Oct. 11 that “The recent events regarding Todd Johnson and the city of Varnell Police Department have created for me an insurmountable conflict of interest.”
The resignation was “effective immediately.”
Felony criminal charges against Johnson, the Cohutta town attorney, for bribery and extortion were dismissed last week by the Conasauga Judicial Circuit through the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. The criminal charges were related to Johnson’s work as a private attorney.
On Oct. 4, Varnell Police Department Lt. Winston Swilley obtained an arrest warrant in Whitfield County Magistrate Court for Johnson for criminal attempt to commit bribery and criminal attempt to commit extortion, citing an email Johnson had sent to Rayburn. The affidavit Swilley submitted in support of the warrant did not say Johnson is the Cohutta town attorney or that he was acting as a private attorney representing a driver ticketed by a former Varnell police officer when he sent the email.
In the affidavit, Swilley wrote, “Todd Johnson did willfully and with intent take a substantial step to commit bribery when he sent an email to Brain (sic) Rayburn (Varnell city prosecutor) offering a ‘small donation’ (money or favors) to have two Varnell citations dismissed.”
In the administrative dismissal of the charges, the judicial circuit (Whitfield and Murray counties) representatives said Johnson had not committed bribery or extortion but had been seeking a plea bargain for his client.
“The entire situation (criminal investigation, warrant being issued, subsequent arrest, etc.) with Todd could have and should have been handled differently,” Rayburn said in an email Wednesday. “Sadly, I think the entire situation could have been avoided with one phone call to either me, (District Attorney) Bert (Poston) or (Varnell City Attorney) Terry (Miller). For whatever reason, that phone call was never made.”
“As a result of the actions that were taken, I cannot continue to work for the city when employees believed that taking such an egregious action against Todd was appropriate,” Rayburn said. “If Todd files a civil lawsuit against the city (NOTE: I have no information this will happen), I would expect to be called as a witness in that case, give a deposition, etc., and if I were still employed by the city, then I would be forced to testify against my employer (the city). That fact alone creates the insurmountable conflict of interest that cannot be avoided or ignored.”
Dickson said Rayburn was not asked to resign.
“That was his decision,” he said. “I do expect that if there is a lawsuit he will be called as a witness. I’m not sure that would require him to resign, but that was his choice.”
Johnson has referred questions to his attorney, Leslie Waycaster, who did not immediately return an email message Wednesday.
The charges against Johnson were dismissed by attorneys with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, who were brought in when District Attorney Bert Poston “conflicted out” of the case. The council now has the responsibility in the state to handle conflict appointments.
The dismissal said “the essential element of the offense of bribery is that a defendant must be shown to have offered money or valuables to a government official with the purpose (or intent) of influencing him in the performance of an official act. Mr. Johnson did not make such an offer to Solicitor Rayburn, but rather offered as a plea bargain to have his client pay a small fine to the city of Varnell to resolve his client’s charges.
“Also, the crux of the crime of theft by extortion is that a defendant uses a threat to unlawfully obtain property of or from another person. Mr. Johnson’s email does not seek to obtain any property from Solicitor Rayburn or any other person.”
Johnson had sent Rayburn the email regarding a client Johnson represents who had been stopped for speeding and a window tint violation by then-Varnell police officer Shawn Norris on Sept. 10 on Highway 201.
In the email, Johnson said Varnell had hired Norris, whom he called Morris, “against Bert Poston’s advice” and that because of certain allegations against Norris “Bert will dismiss any of his charges according to my information.”
Johnson said he was trying to resolve his client’s case.
“I was hoping a small donation to the Varnell cause would keep (his client) in Atlanta, but I await your sage advice, sir,” the email said.
In an incident report, Varnell Police Chief Kyle Moreno said based on the comments in the email about a donation, Johnson “is attempting to bypass due process and reward Varnell if his request is fulfilled.”
In a supplemental report, Swilley said after reviewing the evidence he had determined Johnson “has willfully and knowingly committed the offense of criminal attempt to commit bribery and criminal attempt to commit extortion .. to bypass due process to get two citations dismissed by monetary means” and referenced the section of Johnson’s email mentioning “a small donation to the Varnell cause.” He said Johnson’s reference to “Officer Norris’ past shows a substantial step in (committing) extortion by stating events he states as fact even though the charges were dropped” against Norris.
Rayburn said previously he was not involved in the investigation and the officers did not speak with him.
“I figured out about the criminal investigation and the warrant after the warrant had been issued by Magistrate Court,” he said.
Rayburn said he did not send a copy of the Johnson email to Moreno but did send it to the city clerk because he had warned city officials earlier that defense attorneys would seek to have cases involving Norris “bound up” to Superior Court, where the district attorney’s office would not prosecute them. He said Johnson’s email showed his prediction was coming true.
In 2018 Norris and another officer with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office were charged with attempted rape. The charges were dismissed in 2019.
According to Norris’ Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) profile, before he was an officer Norris was found guilty in 2002 of misdemeanor stalking and harassing communication. For actions in 2011 he was indicted for criminal trespass, stalking, criminal attempt to commit aggravated stalking and obstruction of an officer while with the Ware County Sheriff’s Office. In 2014, those charges were placed on the dead docket (not prosecuted). In 2015 the charges were “nolle prossed,” abandoned by the prosecutor.
In 2016, POST placed Norris on 36 months probation and ordered him to complete a domestic violence course and issued a public reprimand.
A phone number for Norris could not be found. Varnell officials said he submitted his resignation from the police department on Oct. 2, effective Oct. 15. Moreno said Norris was looking for a job with health insurance.