Vidalia Alderman and mayor protempore Robert Gardner pled no contest to misdemeanor theft Monday in Concordia Parish Court, according to Seventh District Attorney Brad Burget.
With the no contest, Seventh Judicial Judge Kathy Johnson sentenced Gardner six months in parish jail which was suspended and one year probation on Monday.
Additionally, Gardner must pay $500 plus court cost, restitution to the Town of Vidalia and $40 per month probation fee.
The verdict stemmed from Gardner taking metered envelopes (postage paid) from the Town of Vidalia that were used by voters requesting absentee ballots from the Registrar of Voters office, according to District Attorney Brad Burget. The town’s return address on the envelopes had been “whited out” and the name of the voter requesting the absentee ballot written in on the return address.
Gardner was running for re-election at the time.
In the Nov. 6 indictment of Gardner, Burget said Gardner was also “abrasive” with town employees and had them make copies of his “own political campaign material, which is an abuse of office.”
He said that the town had some metered envelopes on hand following a mail out to town residents.
Burget said Gardner took some metered envelopes, dated 2019, that were setting by a window in the utility department.
In the spring of 2020, the Registrar of Voters office had received several envelopes from Vidalia that had a postmark of 2019. Burget said that drew suspicion because of the old date.
A Vidalia town hall employee identified those envelopes as among the ones that Gardner had picked up.
“I’m glad this matter has been resolved,” Burget said. “I am disappointed that Aldermen Gardner took the envelopes to enhance his political career. I hold elected officials to a higher standard and that is why I pursued this.”
Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said public officials should not abuse their authority for their own good.
“As elected officials we have got to exercise our political responsibilities consistently in the public interest, independent from our own private interest not using our authority to maintain our office for our own good, wealth or position,” said Craft. “We can’t just do that.”
Craft went on to say, public officials must strive to build political integrity within Vidalia and practice “good government.”
“There is a debate about public interest,” Craft said. “A lot of people have their views and ideas on what political integrity is, but there are safe guards that exist throughout the political process that pretty well spells that out. We as politicians should always be subject to scrutiny by the public and also with our checks and balances that keep us in check so we don’t do that. We have got to build our political integrity with our town and deliver good government to our citizens. A lot of people are going to say this is a small thing and shouldn’t have received so much attention. But going unchecked and someone having no fear of repercussions when they do wrong only breeds bad politicians and bad government. We at Vidalia are going to be above that.”
Craft said his administration will continue to strive to provide quality services to Vidalia’s residents.
“We are going to continue to provide the services and be good stewards of the finances of this town and promote economic development,” Craft said. “This is a distraction for us but tomorrow we are going to wake up and do the work of our town.”
As far as Gardner resigning from his positions, Graft said, “His electors will make the final decision on what they think about it.”
Gardner was unavailable for comment at press time.