Innocent until proven guilty

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 10, 2007

By now, most readers of this newspaper know that a Marengo County grand jury indicted Mayor Cecil Williamson on two felonies related to her receiving health insurance paid for by city funds that were never approved by the city.

But let me say this: Nothing about this case is easy to understand, and nothing seems tremendously clear cut, despite what some would have us believe. So let&8217;s start with what we know.

That, in essence, is the gist of what we concretely know. What we have been told and believe to be true answers a few obvious questions.

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Despite all of this, three glaring questions remain.

I&8217;m no legal expert, but I&8217;m pretty certain the mayor&8217;s innocence hinges on the answer to that first question. The other two questions have more to do with any negligence on the part of other city leaders and with their motives for only now pursuing this current course of action.

On the first question, Rich said she spoke with the mayor about the Water Board&8217;s instructions that Williamson pay for the benefits. Rich says the mayor told her to continue to pay the monthly premiums because Williamson was still negotiating for said benefits.

Granted, this is only one person&8217;s word. The mayor, who now declines all comment about the matter on advice of legal council, has not spoken to this particular claim.

All the mayor has said is that she was unaware of the fact that she was not to receive benefits from the city. She called it a misunderstanding. I&8217;ve seen the minutes from two Water Board meetings where she was present and where her benefits were discussed and denied. I don&8217;t buy that she didn&8217;t know she was getting something the board had not granted her.

If what Rich said is true, then I can believe the mayor was still hoping the board would grant her benefits. I can believe she was acting in good faith and trying to get something passed she believed she deserved.

So the key to answering the second question &8212; Why did the benefits continue after March 2005? &8212; comes to another question: Was the mayor ever told to stop? The minutes I have reviewed do not reflect a directive from any board instructing the mayor or a clerk to cease the insurance payments. If that is the case, a judge or jury is going to have to wade into the gray area of who is responsible for the continued health benefits: the mayor, the council, the Water Board or a clerk? Then they have to decide whether or not the responsible person willingly broke a law.

As to the third question, if the council failed to act in stopping the benefits through either legal action or a board directive, a judge or jury might find that it was a wholesale breakdown by city leaders to correct a known problem. Using that logic, they might decide punishing one official and not others would be unjust.

The mayor either knowingly broke the law or she didn&8217;t. That&8217;s for a court to decide. Until then, she is innocent.

As for city leaders, we&8217;ll be asking them about why they didn&8217;t act sooner, or if in fact they did. Their answers should shed more light on this entire convoluted mess.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to