Conway defends honor

LAWRENCEVILLE - Two years ago, Butch Conway took to the podium after the district attorney announced the indictment of two political operatives just days before a primary runoff.

"It's about protecting the integrity of the election," the sheriff said then about the investigation into Bill McKinney and Nancy Walter, accused of an anonymous smear campaign against Commissioner Kevin Kenerly. "We can't let the process be usurped by illegal actions."

The Georgia Supreme Court later determined the county was not the appropriate venue for the charges.

Conway stood at another podium Thursday to defend himself from complaints filed against him during the political in-fighting of this year's commission primary.

"I should have the right to support someone without being personally attacked," said Conway, who has endorsed Lorraine Green in the GOP chairman's race against incumbent Charles Bannister. "I've had to pay for doing that, a lot of harassment. I'm not going to be intimidated, and that's what they were trying to do."

Green and Bannister are facing each other in a runoff Tuesday.

At a news conference, Conway played an audio recording of a conversation with George Anderson, executive director of Ethics in Government Group, who filed complaints against Conway's endorsement commercial, which features deputies in uniform, and other charges.

In it, Anderson said he believed he was put in as "a hired gun," when given information about Conway from Joe Newton, a lobbyist from Norcross who has produced negative advertisements and literature against Green.

Anderson was not at the news conference but said in a phone conversation he now believes he should never get involved in local politics just prior to an election.

"I think I've gotten brought into something I should have completely stayed out of," he said, adding that he believes on second glance that violations have occurred on both sides of the race. "I don't know if I should file a complaint against Bannister or just walk away."

Thompson said he was told by the State Ethics Commission he needed to provide more information for his complaint against Conway, but instead he decided against pursuing it further.

But in a later message left on voicemail at the Post by Anderson, with Newton also on the line, he said he would not back down from complaints, including those about controversial land deals, which Newton has asked the grand jury to investigate.

"I'm being used, I believe, by both sides. I'm not concerned about the politics going on here. I'm concerned about Gwinnett County taxpayer money being misused," Anderson said in the message. "I've filed ethics complaints in good faith that violations were made."

State Sen. Renee Unterman attended Conway's news conference to reiterate statements she made after the McKinney indictment about the need for stiffer ethics laws. After holding a news conference with Green two years ago, Unterman filed legislation, which passed the Senate but never came up for a vote at the House of Representatives.

"We're in the gutter; we're staying in the gutter," said Unterman, who admitted she's dated Newton in the past. "If this trend doesn't stop, you're not going to find people who will run for office. What is going to happen to our system if we don't take control?"

Conway and Green have said Newton works for Bannister, but Bannister and Newton both deny the ties. Newton claims on disclosures for his political action committee to have given Bannister a $2,000 donation in 2004, but Bannister said his campaign has not received the funds and has no ties to Newton.

"They don't have anything to campaign on positive," Bannister said when contacted Thursday. "I think their wagon has slid into the ditch. They are resorting to whatever they think they can latch onto to pull themselves out."

For her part, Green said she thinks Gwinnett's voters are tired of politics as usual.

"It's one thing to deal with an opponent you can see, but when you have an opponent who deals in supposition and innuendo, it has no place in Gwinnett County," she said.

Gregory Howard, the chairman of the Gwinnett GOP, attended Thursday's news conference but declined to speak before cameras. He said the party's executive board doesn't want to get involved in the race but was concerned the negative campaigning was driving down voter turnout.

"Joe is a friend, and I support him questioning (politicians), but where is the line?" Howard said. "This drives voters away. We have continually watched turnout drop over the years."