DA: County lawyer drug case strong

Published 8:27 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Stoddard is taken into custody by Brewton police officers.

Law enforcement officials in Conecuh County — where nine years ago attorney Sarah Elisabeth “Sally” Stoddard faced the same kind of drug charges for which she was arrested in Brewton last week — believe Brewton has a better case this time.

When Stoddard was arrested nearly a decade ago in Conecuh County on charges she offered law services in exchange for drugs, then-sheriff Tracy Hawsey thought law enforcement officers had a good case against her.

But the attorney general’s office — who took over the case when District Attorney Tommy Chapman recused himself — declined to prosecute.

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Stoddard, who had been briefly suspended from practicing by the Alabama State Bar Association, later sued, claiming she had been framed.

As of last week, she is facing the same charges in Brewton — and according to media reports, Stoddard also says she has been framed in the latest case.

“We did an undercover operation with my department as well as with ABI back in 2003,” Hawsey said of the Conecuh County investigation. “We had a solid case with good video and audio. It was a case of pills being swapped for legal services, similar to this case in Brewton. The (district attorney) did not pursue it, and the (attorney general’s) office was invited to prosecute. They looked at the case and decided not to prosecute.”

Brewton police arrested Stoddard Friday and charged her with unlawful possession of a controlled substance and attempting to commit a controlled substance crime — both felony charges.  Stoddard has told reporters she did nothing wrong and an undercover officer posing as a client planted the drugs in her Brewton office bathroom.

Chapman said the Conecuh case was flawed.

“There were problems with the case from the start,” he said Tuesday.

“The investigator that handled it basically botched the case.” Chapman said it was his understanding that a confidential informant was used in the Conecuh County case against Stoddard.  “I believe you have a better case there (in Brewton) since undercover officers were used,” Chapman said. “In our case, the attorney general’s office was correct in what they did. The Bar Association did disbar her for a period of time because of the charges.”

Brewton police have said last week’s investigation used an undercover officer who was equipped with a recording device to bring about the arrest of Stoddard last week.

“We had gotten a tip that this kind of activity was going on,” Brewton Police Chief McGougin said. “We had someone go into the office posing as someone who had been arrested by our department and offer to make payment for legal services with drugs and cash. When the suspect accepted payment, we were able to make the arrest.”

Information on the status of Stoddard’s law license after her most recent arrest was not available from Alabama Bar Association officials Tuesday. But former disciplinary panel member and local attorney Everette Price did shed some light on standard operating procedures in such cases.

“Once the State Bar receives a complaint concerning an attorney it is investigated,” Price said. “If it is deemed that a situation is of potential danger for the public, they can order an immediate suspension of license. That can be done by a staff attorney for the association. Any information concerning an investigation remains confidential.”

After her 2003 arrest was dismissed, Stoddard filed a lawsuit against county officials to try to clear her name.

“Six months after the arrest Stoddard sued my department and me personally,” Hawsey said. “It took almost a year for a federal judge to rule in my behalf concerning the lawsuit, further solidifying, in my opinion, our case (against her).”

McGougin said the case will now be presented to a grand jury to determine whether the case will go to try or not.

“I hope this does go to trial,” McGougin said “We have all our evidence in place with everything documented. She will either go to trial or make a plea bargain on this case.”

Stoddard was released on $10,000 bond Friday. Attempts to reach her Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful.