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State AG candidate appeals complaint

ATLANTA -- A candidate vying to be Georgia's attorney general is locked in a legal battle over claims that he abused his power in a high-profile case he was entangled in as a Dougherty County prosecutor.

Ken Hodges' attorneys asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit that contends he violated the civil rights of two men who sent a flurry of faxes that criticized the management of the Phoebe Putney Health System, an influential Albany hospital.

Hodges, one of four candidates vying to replace Attorney General Thurbert Baker, has long claimed he has done nothing wrong. The three-judge panel, which could rule within months, is weighing the case as the Democrat gears up for a July primary against state Rep. Rob Teilhet, of Smyrna.

The legal wrangling has become a familiar saga in southwest Georgia, where Phoebe runs Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and plays a key role in civic life. But Hodges' bid for statewide office has focused more attention on the case, and the downtown Atlanta courtroom was packed with observers Thursday.

The saga began in 2003 when anonymous faxes critical of the company began landing in the inboxes of Albany leaders. Hospital leaders soon launched an investigation into the sources of the faxes, which divulged information on Phoebe's executive salaries, political connections and financial holdings.

The investigation eventually traced the faxes to Charles Rehberg, an accountant, and Dr. John Bagnato, a prominent surgeon. But Rehberg's attorneys claim that Hodges, who was then the Dougherty County District Attorney, helped by using grand jury subpoenas even though the grand jury wasn't yet investigating the case.

Rehberg filed a federal lawsuit arguing that Hodges launched a formal investigation into him as a "political favor" for Phoebe's leaders. The complaint said it led to an indictment against Rehberg on charges of aggravated assault, burglary and harassing telephone calls despite no evidence of those claims. The charges were later dismissed.

The lawsuit also argues that even after Hodges recused himself from the case in May 2005, he and another prosecutor continued to orchestrate the grand jury investigation to try to drum up criminal charges against Rehberg.

"There was no evidence of a burglary," said Bryan Vroon. "Government investigators came up with a scheme to frame Mr. Rehberg, to punish him for criticizing this private company."

Hodges, who in a twist is represented by the office led by the man he hopes to replace, contended that Hodges is protected by immunity from the charges because the claims took place while he was performing his duties as a prosecutor.

State attorney Michelle Hirsch contended that fabricating incriminating evidence can violate federal laws, but she said Rehberg has not identified any specific evidence presented to the grand jury that was fabricated or untruthful.

"Mere allegations of fabricating evidence are just that" -- allegations, she said.

Hodges, who has since left the prosecutor's office, now works for the Baudino Law Group, which does legal work for Phoebe Putney. Hodges and Teilhet are among four candidates to succeed Baker, a Democrat running for governor. Two Republicans -- Cobb County Commission Chair Sam Olens and former U.S. Attorney Max Wood -- are also running.