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Mayor said he was trying to help

Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry says he believes he did what was best for the city when he took a city employee who had been drinking home from a storm-damage scene.

And there are those who are willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt, including a couple of city councilmen.

"I think he handled the situation the best he could under the circumstances," Councilman Clifford "Bud" Lunceford said Monday. "I talked to the city attorney, and he has told me that he did not believe he broke any laws or anything."

Lunceford added, however, that "no alcohol should be involved in anything any city employee does."

Thomson Public Works supervisor Scott Huff was suspended from his job for 10 days. Statements from police and the mayor say Huff had driven a city vehicle after drinking.

The incident happened in the wake of a storm that felled trees and power lines throughout the area on June 18.

Huff was given a field sobriety test by police at the scene. As police were questioning Huff, the mayor arrived and, after a brief conversation, told Huff, "Come with me." They then left in the city vehicle Huff had driven to the scene, according to a patrol car video and an accompanying audio recording.

Thomson Police Chief Joe Nelson says the mayor's action prevented police from conducting a test that would have proved whether Huff had a blood-alcohol level exceeding the legal limit.

"Any chance we had to make that DUI was gone the minute they pulled off in that truck," Nelson said in an interview with The McDuffie Mirror.

Nelson said that he and Capt. Jamie Bridges, who was on the scene that night, have since met with the mayor.

"We explained to him that this could not happen again," Nelson said.

Councilman Jaye Jones said he also believes the mayor did what he thought was best under the circumstances.

"None of us should obstruct or interfere with an ongoing police investigation," said Jones, an attorney.

"I believe he made the best decision he thought he should make at the time."

Another council member, the Rev. John Smalley, said that what the mayor did was out of line.

"From what I can see I think it was improper what he did," Smalley said after viewing the video. "I think he should have let the officer do his job, and we wouldn't be having this discussion."

Councilman Alton Belton was in Savannah, Ga., for a conference and was unavailable for comment. Councilwoman Bernice Brown said she had no comment on the issue and referred questions to City Attorney Jim Plunkett. Plunkett was also at the conference in Savannah and unavailable for comment, according to his office.

In an interview with The Mirror last week, Usry denied trying to prevent Huff's arrest.

"By no means was I trying to bypass the police," he said.

He said he drove Huff home in the city vehicle because "that was not the place for him to be." He said he was concerned for Huff's safety and that of others at the scene.

Statements from the mayor and the incident report filed by Thomson Patrolman Keith Smith were released by Plunkett.

Smith wrote that he was called to Lee Street and West Hall Street, where a tree had fallen across the roadway. Smith said Huff drove up in a city vehicle. Smith said fellow officer Pat Sanders reported smelling alcohol on Huff.

Bridges was called to the scene. When the officers confronted Huff, he asked to speak with Usry.

Usry's statement says he was inspecting storm damage when he saw Huff talking with police. Usry said he realized the officers' concerns. "I, too, thought I smelled alcohol on Huff," the mayor wrote.

The police report says Usry was told before he took Huff home that he was over the legal limit.

"I guarantee you he's at least point 15," Smith tells Usry in the video. A blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is considered legally drunk. At another point in the video, after Usry has returned to talk with police, the mayor says Huff might still be charged with DUI, but police can be heard telling the mayor that that is no longer possible.

Mirror Executive Editor Garth Snow contributed to this story.

Web posted on Thursday, June 30, 2011

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