Dougherty County School Board member Velvet Riggins is surrounded by a throng of supporters Friday as she leaves Dougherty Superior Court after being acquitted on all three counts of school lunch fraud against her. Riggins, who was suspended from office by Gov. Nathan Deal in July, immediately resumes her seat on the board.
ALBANY, Ga. — An eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated nearly two hours Friday before acquitting Dougherty County School board member Velvet Riggins on three counts of school lunch fraud.
"I am very relieved to get this over with," said Riggins, who was indicted in April on four counts of including false information on a Sept. 20, 2011, free and reduced-cost meal application to receive free lunches for her two children. "I am exhausted; it's been a long six months.
"God gets all the credit, and I am ready to get back to work on the school board," she said. "We have a SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) accreditation team in town next week. It's time to get back to work."
The state’s case centered on the lunch application for the 2011-12 school year which listed an annual income of just $9,066 from child support and her stipend as a School Board member.
On the income (Part 4) section of the application, she had written “Girl Scouts,” but left out a dollar amount in annual income. The $9,066 total qualified Riggins’ two children for free meals.
She filed a second application on Oct. 24, 2011, listing her $30,000 income from the Girl Scouts, which boosted her income to $39,053, which was more in line with previously filed applications.
The state’s case was weakened on Wednesday when former Child Nutrition Services Director Vanessa Hayes testified that because of the blank income line on the application, it should have been flagged and not processed. She said the department violated its own policy in that regard.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss granted defense attorney Mark Brimberry’s directed verdict motion to dismiss one of the four counts, felony public records fraud.
Goss based his decision on the prosecution citing the wrong state statute in its original charge letter. The judge, however, denied Brimberry’s other directed verdict motions, allowing the three other charges to stand.
The prosecution called seven witnesses to the stand during the week-long trial.
"We heard a lot of testimony and listened to both sides," jury foreman Tom Sharpe said. "We felt that there was not enough evidence that she (Riggins) intended to defraud the school system. To us it (the blank income line) seemed to be an honest mistake.
"It was fairly easy to reach our decision."
Brimberry, leaving the courthouse, appeared haggard but pleased.
"This case has been weighing heavily on me and my client," Brimberry said. "I am relieved, tired and happy for Velvet Riggins. I am glad to see that our judicial system worked the way it was designed to work."
Brimberry agreed that the Wednesday testimony of Hayes and applications clerk Eva Holiday marked a turning point in the case.
"Hayes' and Holiday's testimonies were huge," Brimberry said. "They brought home the point I was trying to make — that the Sept. 20 application was a simple mistake."
South Georgia Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Heather Lanier, who prosecuted the case, did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment.
In late June, Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Riggins from the School Board pending resolution of the case. She is the only candidate who has qualified to run Nov. 6 for a new four-year term representing District 3 on School Board.
Her acquittal means she will immediately return to her seat on the board.