ATLANTA - A pastor on staff at a Gwinnett County church who represents Rockdale and DeKalb counties in the legislature pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal money laundering charges.
Rep. Ron Sailor Jr., D-Decatur, associate pastor at Christ the King Baptist Church in Dacula, agreed to resign his House seat within 24 hours.
Sailor, 33, in his fourth term as a lawmaker, appeared in U.S. District Court in Atlanta before Judge Jack T. Camp to answer one felony count of laundering and attempting to launder about $375,000 in drug proceeds.
"I want to say how truly sorry I am to be here before the court," he told Camp. "I was desperate for money. I did business with a person who I believed to be a drug dealer to try to get myself out of debt."
Sailor has been a pastor at Christ the King Baptist Church in Dacula, where he served with his father Ron Sailor Sr., a once popular television reporter and radio host. The younger Sailor was elected to the state House in 2001, but has been mostly a bit player since Republicans took control of the chamber in 2005.
Outside the House chamber, though, he had some high-profile money problems.
He was arrested in August on a felony fraud charge by Gwinnett County authorities, who said he bounced a $1,111 check he wrote to the city of Buford that was supposed to pay utilities on a house there. He was also charged with driving with a suspended license and failure to appear in court.
In November the state Ethics Commission slapped him with a $1,225 fine for repeatedly failing to file required campaign finance reports. And authorities threatened to garnish his state wages to settle more than $13,000 in overdue state income taxes in 2006, dropping the request only after he paid the delinquent taxes.
Sailor caught the attention of federal authorities when his name came up during a larger investigation into money laundering. Soon, they focused their investigation on him.
Prosecutors say during meetings between Nov. 10 and Dec. 19, Sailor laundered $75,000 for a 10 percent fee, returning the money to the undercover operative as business loan checks and payments for contracting work for a church that didn't exist.
He was arrested in Atlanta on Dec. 19 after he accepted $300,000 he had agreed to launder, authorities said.
Democratic legislative leaders expressed sadness and disappointment upon learning of their colleague's guilty plea.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he and Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, got the news Tuesday morning from Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram.
"This is something that pains all of us," Smyre said. "I've been in this House for 34 years. Anytime anyone crosses that line, it hurts very deeply."
Porter said it's now clear why Sailor was absent from the House floor so much during the current session.
Sailor was arrested in December after several meetings with an undercover FBI agent who he believed was a drug dealer from Florida, said U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias.
Sailor had offered to launder drug money for a fee, Nahmias said.
Shortly after being detained for questioning, Sailor admitted the crime and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in an ongoing public corruption investigation, Nahmias said.
"Representative Sailor's actions ... were very disturbing because he was a person entrusted by his community with enacting the law, who instead violated the law in a serious way," the attorney said.
Nahmias strongly hinted that Sailor's cooperation with federal investigators could lead to legal trouble for other public officials.
"All I will say at this time is ... Mr. Sailor and others have learned, people in public office who have violated the law and the public's trust should know that their situation will be much better if they come knocking on the FBI's door than if the FBI comes knocking on theirs," Nahmias said.
Smyre said one of the worst aspects of Sailor's case is that it erodes public trust in elected officials.
"There's so many good people in this body," Porter said. "We hope this doesn't reflect on everybody who works hard and does their best."
It was unclear Tuesday whether a special election would be held to fill Sailor's seat or whether his successor would be chosen during the regular election cycle.
Bert Brantley, spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said state law gives the governor 10 days after a vacancy occurs to call for an election. The secretary of state then sets the date, Brantley said.
While candidate qualifying for this year's legislative elections isn't scheduled until late next month, one Democrat in the 93rd House District already had tossed his hat into the ring before Tuesday.
Malik Douglas, 37, of Lithonia, a second lieutenant in the Georgia Army National Guard, is a former DeKalb County police officer.
"It's going to be an uphill challenge," Douglas said Tuesday. "A lot of people will be attracted to an open seat."
The 93rd District, which cuts through Rockdale County just south of Conyers into southeastern DeKalb, is heavily Democratic.
Sailor is due to be sentenced on May 22. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Jay Jones of the Rockdale Citizen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.