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Bannister's arrest leads to GBI look

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will investigate the controversial drunken driving arrest -- and speedy exoneration -- of Gwinnett's top government official this week, authorities said Friday.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway asked for the independent investigation in a phone call to GBI director Vernon Keenan on Thursday night. Conway is also expected to submit an official letter of request, Bankhead said.

The investigation should begin next week.

GBI investigators are expected to turn over copies of their findings to Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter and the sheriff when the probe concludes, Bankhead said.

"There is no timeline on any investigation," he said.

A Sheriff's Department spokesperson said Friday that Conway would not comment on his request to the GBI beyond what information was issued in a press release.

The release states Conway "looks forward" to the GBI investigation and any subsequent details it may find.

A sheriff's deputy arrested Bannister on DUI and traffic charges Monday night after a Lilburn cafe patron called a deputy, a personal friend, to report the chairman was drinking beer and driving his county-issued Ford Crown Victoria. Another deputy watched from a gas station parking lot until Bannister left, then followed and stopped him near his Lilburn home.

Bannister was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center for a blood test after a Breathalyzer showed no alcohol in his system. Conway asked that a GBI analysis of the blood be expedited, then issued a public apology when that test also showed no alcohol in Bannister's system. All charges were dropped.

Throughout the ordeal, Bannister has reserved comment for his attorney but said in an earlier release he was relieved to be exonerated.

Bannister's attorney, Alan Mullinax, could not be reached for comment Friday. In a previous interview, Mullinax outlined several key concerns he has with the case:

* The deputy's report stated Bannister was driving erratically before he was pulled over, yet his only traffic charge was failure to use a turn signal;

* Bannister's arrest was based partially on a field sobriety test he'd taken that involved balance. The test is not recommended for suspects over age 55 because of diminished agility, Mullinax said. Bannister is 71;

* The amount of alcohol Bannister admitted to drinking -- one or two beers -- could have cleared his system by the time he took a Breathalyzer test 53 minutes after the traffic stop, Mullinax said. The investigation into his intoxication should have thus concluded with the breath test, the attorney said.

Whether or not Bannister will pursue civil litigation is unclear.

Conway has acknowledged that he's butted heads with Bannister on political matters but insists ulterior motives played no role in the arrest.

Bannister's arrest was a mistake but not a set-up, Conway has said.