Former prosecutor gets prison time in ticket-fixing case
Posted February 22, 2010 10:28 a.m. EST
Updated February 22, 2010 7:46 p.m. EST
Smithfield, N.C. — A former assistant district attorney in Johnston County pleaded guilty Monday to illegally dismissing traffic cases, including citations for driving while impaired.
Cyndi Jaeger pleaded guilty to 10 counts each of felony obstruction of justice and altering official case records. Superior Court Judge Henry Hight sentenced her to at least three years in prison and another three years on probation. She also was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and surrender her law license.
Jaeger, four defense attorneys and a deputy court clerk were indicted last March on charges that they altered court records and knowingly used illegal dismissal forms to get traffic cases against at least 37 people dropped.
Seventy dismissal forms with Jaeger's signature on them were filed after she left her job in September 2007, according to the indictments. The dismissal forms were filed for clients of defense attorneys Chad Lee, Lee Hatch, Vann Sauls and Jack McLamb. Portia Snead, the court clerk, deleted the attorneys' names from at least two cases from the courthouse computer system.
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said Monday that she plans to refile DWI charges in cases that were improperly dismissed.
"I think it would be improper for these defendants to benefit from a fraud that was perpetrated on the courts and the people of Johnston County," she said.
State Bureau of Investigation agent Randy Myers said Lee, Hatch and Jaeger devised the scheme when Jaeger put in notice that she would be leaving the Johnston County District Attorney's office. The lawyers told investigators that Jaeger asked them to file the dismissal forms after she left, Myers said.
Jaeger's lawyer, David Freedman, disputed that Monday, saying Lee told investigators that after learning that Jaeger planned to testify against him in the case.
Jaeger told investigators she sometimes let defense attorneys fill out blank dismissals for her when she was busy, and he said they likely stockpiled the forms for future use.
"She was irresponsible and reckless in terms of how she signed those forms," he said, adding that she wasn't part of any conspiracy.
"There is no evidence that Cyndi Jaeger ever benefited financially in any fashion in what went on," he said.
Doyle said she has instituted a new policy barring any prosecutor in her office from signing dismissal forms after they put in notice that they are leaving the office.
Former co-workers said Jaeger became frustrated with Doyle in 2007 after supporting her election as district attorney in 2006 and not getting a promotion afterward.
"It was different working as co-workers than when I was her boss," Doyle said Monday. "It was obvious she was no longer happy."
She said she remains convinced that Jaeger and the attorneys agreed to dismiss DWI cases.
"I think there was some sort of plan to dismiss cases for defendants and attorneys as she was headed out the door," she said.
The majority of the defendants involved in the SBI investigation were clients of Lee, a former Johnston County prosecutor.
The other five defendants in the case pleaded guilty last month. Lee and Hatch surrendered their law licenses and were sentenced to prison, while the others were placed on probation.
A few months after Jaeger left, Doyle asked the SBI to look into the high rate of dismissed drunken-driving cases in Johnston County. A tracking system installed in October 2007 found several discrepancies in cases that were scheduled for trial but had been dismissed months earlier, she said.
A 2008 investigation by WRAL News found that 46 percent of the DWI charges filed in Johnston County in 2006 were dismissed, compared with 21 percent statewide and 20 percent in neighboring Wake County.
Thirty-two cases that were part of involved alcohol-related charges, primarily DWI. Some of the defendants had alcohol levels in their system that were more than double the 0.08 level at which drivers are considered intoxicated in North Carolina.
Eleven of the defendants had been charged previously with drunken driving or have had subsequent DWI arrests.
Sheila and Greca Lassiter's son, Marcus, was killed in April 2008 by a drunken driver who had a DWI dismissed by Jaeger and Hatch. Although the dismissed case wasn't part of the ticket-fixing investigation, the couple was in court Monday to remind authorities about their son.
"We won't ever understand how this could happen in Johnston County," Sheila Lassiter said.
Doyle said she has a policy that precludes prosecutors from dismissing DWI cases if the investigating officer is available for court. Since October 2008, the conviction rate for DWIs in Johnston County has jumped to 85 percent.