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Fayette Commission candidate Ognio guilty of road rage in 2002 case

A candidate running for the Post 3 seat on the Fayette County Commission has admitted that he pled guilty to aggressive driving for following a woman home who had cut him off in traffic in south Fayetteville in 2002.

Randy Ognio is challenging incumbent Commissioner Lee Hearn. A third candidate, Susan Stopford, is also on the July 31 Republican Primary ballot for that post.

Ognio said he decided to follow the vehicle home under the assumption that the driver was a teenager, and he felt the teen’s parents should know about the matter.

Ognio, 53, pled guilty in November 2005 to aggressive driving, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to a $500 fine, 12 months probation and was required to take an anger management class. Prosecutors dropped a felony charge of aggravated assault, which accused Ognio of driving his vehicle at Joann Nieves, a contention Ognio strongly denies.

Ognio admitted to driving in the grass of the Nieves’ yard at 111 Arnold Road, but said he was merely trying to pull alongside Joann Nieves’ car, not to attack her with his vehicle.

Ognio said he drove away after hearing two gunshots, which, according to a sheriff’s incident report, were fired into the ground by the woman’s husband because he feared for her safety.

Ognio’s 12-year-old son was in the vehicle at the time, he admitted, saying they had just left soccer practice when the incident occurred. The time of the incident, according to court records, was 9:10 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2002.

A sheriff’s jailer who witnessed the road rage incident said he saw Ognio’s vehicle run the stop sign at Ramah and Redwine roads as Ognio followed Mrs. Nieves’ yellow Ford Mustang more than four miles away to the woman’s residence on Arnold Road.

The jailer’s statement also said that Ognio “was driving very aggressively, at certain points he seemingly tried to run the Mustang off the road.”

“That’s a friggin’ lie too,” Ognio said, adding that he broke no traffic laws in pursuing the yellow Mustang. “Look, I don’t know who this guy is. But if I wanted to run the Mustang off the road, I would’ve run the Mustang off the road. ... I never got up beside it and I followed right behind it. So how is it that I tried to run the Mustang off the road?”

In hindsight, Ognio said he wishes he would have either called police or let the collision happen instead of swerving to avoid it. At the time, however, Ognio was disinclined to call police about the matter, in part because he knew there was nothing they could do other than make a report, and also because he didn’t want the driver, whom thought he was a kid, to get in trouble.

“I’m just not the kind of person who wants to see a youngster get in trouble with the law,” Ognio said. “I’m sorry, things are hard enough on these kids without having done something stupid to get in trouble with the law.”

The sheriff’s department did not file criminal charges in the case; instead Joann Nieves visited a Fayette County Magistrate the day after the incident and two warrants were approved for Ognio’s arrest: one for felony aggravated assault and the other for aggressive driving, a misdemeanor.

Ognio said he got a phone call from the sheriff’s department about the warrants the day after the incident and he turned himself in at the jail.

According to an incident report filed at the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Ognio and the Mustang driven by Nieves were traveling south on Ga. Highway 85 near what is now the Broadway Diner on August 28, 2002.

Ognio said he was in the left lane where the merge begins when Nieves’ vehicle zoomed past him and cut him off, which forced him to swerve into the northbound lane. Ognio said he had no choice but to accelerate past Nieves and the next vehicle ahead of her because there was nowhere else for him to get back into the southbound lane.

After getting back into the southbound lane Ognio admitted that he pulled off to the side of the road to allow the yellow Mustang to pass him so he could follow it, on the theory that he wanted to inform the young driver’s parents.

But when Ognio pulled onto Mrs. Nieves’ property on Arnold Road, Ognio said he did not drive his vehicle at the woman, rather he was attempting to pull alongside her vehicle to “say” something to the driver.

Ognio also contends that the Nieves couple told deputies that he had a gun, but that detail was absent from the sheriff’s incident report on the matter. Ognio contends that after he left the Nieves home on Arnold Road, he came back to Fayetteville to the Ingles grocery store, where he was met by sheriff’s deputies who searched his vehicle for a gun. Ognio said he had no gun with him at the time.

“These people are fruitcakes,” Ognio said.

Ognio said he was upset no charges were filed against the Nieves couple.

“They didn’t get slapped on the hand for anything: the guns or cutting anybody off. It’s kind of an unjust thing there, but it happens,” Ognio said.

Ognio has been a frequent critic of the commission, attending meetings and asking questions relating to topics on the agenda, even making suggestions to help save the county money. He is running for the Post 3 seat against incumbent Lee Hearn and political newcomer Susan Stopford, and it was a supporter of Hearn’s who brought this incident to the attention of The Citizen and supplied some of the documentation.

In a letter to the editor, Hearn supporter Eric Maxwell said he wants voters to know about the incident because he thinks it “indicates how he (Ognio) will deal with conflict in the future.”

Maxwell — a former county commissioner who was defeated for reelection in 2010 — wrote that the incident is “critical information about Randy’s character and his decision-making ability when under pressure.”

Ognio said if he “really flew off the handle all the time I’d have something more on my record than this.” He also accused the information of being released by Hearn, which Hearn has denied.

“I just think it’s important to stay positive and let people know what I bring to the table in terms of talents, integrity and character, and that’s just who I try to be, and I’m not perfect either,” Hearn said.

One of Ognio’s frequent complaints to commissioners is about a lack of transparency. But when it comes to this incident, Ognio defended his decision not to address it after qualifying for office.

“I hadn’t been trying to hide it,” Ognio said, noting that he had spoken to some people about the incident because he felt it was going to come out at a candidate’s forum last week. “They didn’t see where it was a big deal, and if it comes up and it’s out there, they can go look it up. It ain’t something I’m trying to hide.”

Ognio said he felt he was guilty of violating the aggressive driving law just by following Mrs. Nieves.

“I never considered that, and ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Ognio said. “So I pled guilty to it.”

Ognio said he decided to run for election at the behest of citizens, but if this incident keeps him from being elected, he will continue to address issues with the commission during public comments at commission meetings.

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