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Did Woods commit a crime?

I don't want to spend another day pointing fingers while I'm placing blame.

-- Leona Lewis

I woke up early Saturday morning -- that, of itself, being an unusual occurance -- to a thread of a thought that when fully formed would not leave my head.

When I first heard that would-be Albany businesswoman Lajuana Woods had received a $50,000 facade grant for work on her restaurant as part of the mess that has become the city's Buie-gate, I was incensed and felt that Woods should be punished. Even when she voluntarily agreed to pay the money back, I wasn't sure that she should be allowed to get off so easily.

But the thought that hit me Saturday morning and stayed with me through the weekend is this: What crime has Woods committed?

I've heard all the hue and cry from the community -- I was part of it for a while -- about how she "should have known better than to accept the money" and how she should "have to pay all the money back in one lump sum with interest."

But, again, I ask why?

And the reason I ask that question stems from a conversation Buie and I had when the Albany City Commission held its annual board appointment meeting at the start of 2009, when I was still covering Albany government. I didn't think very much of it then, but in light of what has happened since, I've thought about it a lot.

The City Commission had three appointments to make to the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority board during that January meeting, and when commissioners made their choices, Buie came over to where I was seated. He was obviously upset. He told me the commission was going against his wishes with its appointments and said in no uncertain terms that he was not going to stand for their decision.

A couple of days later I got a message from the city noting that one of the board members appointed by the commission had withdrawn and that Woods had been named to the board instead.

Now this next bit is speculation, but it certainly falls in line with the pattern of Buie's actions during his time as ADICA CEO/Albany downtown manager.

Woods is a very well-spoken, intelligent, energetic and attractive young lady. Attractiveness is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and certainly should be of no concern when making business or government decisions. But many of the allegations surrounding Buie are centered on his relationships -- or his attempts at relationships -- with females with whom he became associated.

Perhaps this is why Buie pushed so hard to get Woods on the ADICA board.

From there, the dominoes fall into place. Woods, who came to the area because she fell in love with it and wanted to start a new career here, started work on a restaurant -- LaJua's -- planned for a higher-end clientele. When she ran into a few snags along the way, the guy who ran ADICA came up with a solution: an infusion of money from a little-discussed facade grant program set aside for downtown businesses.

Who would notice if the boundaries of the grant were extended out Radium Springs Road and the amount of funding escalated to, say, $50,000?

Woods accepted the grant, she has said, because Buie, first, assured her that it was legal and, second, because she said she saw nothing wrong with doing so.

Did her position on the board open up the possibility of conflict of interest? Sure. Was it a smart move to accept money under those conditions? In retrospect, of course not.

But if you're new to a community and you're struggling to get a new business started and a person who has exhibited complete authority in the doling out of money for a program that you're told is completely legitimate, what would you do?

Sure, sure, most of us say we would have questioned Buie more thoroughly. But Woods said she did question Buie, and he assured her repeatedly that she was fine.

When the thunder came down on Buie and his unchecked actions with taxpayer money started to unravel, Woods voluntarily agreed to pay back the money she received from the facade grant. The cynic in us would say her actions had more to do with covering her own backside than doing what was right, but the bottom line is she came up with a plan by which she could pay the money back, and she made the first payment on time.

To ask any more of her does not seem fair. And to continue to condemn her in light of the circumstances surrounding her acceptance of the grant seems more misdirected anger than it does a true call for justice.

E-mail Carlton Fletcher at

carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.