GBI releases report on arrest of county chairman

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Within a gargantuan Georgia Bureau of Investigation report made public Tuesday lie several revelations about Commission Chairman Charles Bannister's arrest that were previously kept quiet.

The GBI probe, opened July 6, included interviews with a menagerie of witnesses, government officials and experts who played a role in the bizarre arrest -- and subsequent exoneration -- of the 71-year-old government leader.

Documents indicate the June 28 arrest wasn't Bannister's first time driving his black, county-issued Crown Victoria after drinking a few beers. The deputy who arrested him was among four deputies who claimed to have witnessed Bannister drinking beer Feb. 1 at the same Lilburn cafe before leaving in the government car.

One of Bannister's counterparts in county government and others had warned him about drinking while driving county vehicles, documents show.

Conversely, Bannister told a GBI official during an interview he felt as if deputies were out to get him and that the arrest was a sham.

Bannister said Tuesday he was still poring over the report and withheld further comment.

Throughout the ordeal, Sheriff Butch Conway has denied that he and Bannister are political adversaries. The arrest and baseless charges were more a product of poor judgment than animosity, Conway maintains.

All officials interviewed by the GBI claimed they were not aware of vendettas between the two.

Highlights of the 294-page GBI report include:

* A Feb. 1 written statement by Sheriff's Deputy Michael G. Cummings, who would arrest Bannister four months later. Cummings wrote that he pointed out Bannister at an adjacent table at Cafe Wild Wing while dining with fellow deputies. After the chairman and a friend quickly left, Cummings inquired with a waitress to find Bannister had drank four draft beers, documents show.

The waitress, Jennifer Segura, corroborates that in another written statement.

* The customer who reported Bannister, David Nesmith, called his ex-wife's husband, Sheriff's Department Cpl. Robert Taromina, because he knew no other law enforcement personnel. Nesmith claimed in interviews he was concerned Bannister was violating county policy by drinking three or four beers, not that he appeared too intoxicated to drive.

* The DUI arrest was Cummings' first in four years with the Sheriff's Department. He did not contact a Gwinnett police DUI task force for assistance because he thought they weren't working. He told investigators Bannister had been warned not to drink and drive before.

* Lt. Buzz Benson, who supervised the arrest, told investigators he thought Bannister was drunk as he underwent sobriety tests. Cummings told Benson the chairman appeared "trashed," Benson told the GBI.

* GBI crime lab scientist Kasey Wilson told investigators someone weighing as much as Bannister (190 pounds) could metabolize up to three 10 oz. beers in the timespan between his alleged last drink and the negative blood test. A chronic drinker may metabolize alcohol faster, Wilson said.

* Gwinnett County Administrator Glen Stephens told investigators Conway gave him a "heads-up" during a face-to-face meeting about what deputies allegedly saw in February.

Stephens told Bannister that law enforcement could be watching him, and that he needed to be more careful in county vehicles. The county chairman and administrator alone have unrestricted use of their county assigned vehicles, while a policy regarding alcohol use applies to others, Stephens told investigators.

Stephens did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

* In a July 22 interview, Bannister told GBI investigators he'd consumed two draft beers then shared another with Jim Nash, his appointee to the Planning Commission for Gwinnett, over about two hours after work on June 28. He said he frequents the cafe, sometimes with his wife.

During sobriety tests, Bannister said he expressed disgust with the "awful" situation and repeatedly asked to go home.

The cafe's owner and others had advised Bannister that deputies "were out to get him." His arrest was the sting coming to fruition, he told investigators.

Bannister claimed deputies "know where he eats and drinks," wrote a GBI special agent. "(He) feels like he walked into a trap."