The ethics complaint filed against Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter — who called civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook last month — will move forward.
The hearing officer tasked with determining if the complaint met the mandated “technical requirements” has done just that, according to documents obtained Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gwinnett’s ethics board will now be assembled for the first time ever to decide if Hunter indeed violated the county’s ethics ordinance.
If the complaint is sustained, possible penalties included in the ordinance range from written reprimand to removal from office and “referral to proper criminal authorities.”
The complaint was filed Feb. 6 by two local attorneys representing an Atlanta woman named Nancie Turner. It alleges that Hunter’s social media activity violated three sections of the county’s ethics ordinance, including a portion that urges officials and employees to “never engage in conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust.”
The complaint is the first to be filed under the ordinance, which was adopted in 2011 amid a series of scandals involving shady land deals. It’s aimed primarily at rooting out corruption and conflicts of interest.
Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said Friday that the county attorney’s office is now seeking appointments to the five-person ethics board. Those appointments will be made by the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office, the Gwinnett County Bar Association, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia — and Hunter himself.
Once the board is in place, Hunter will have 30 days to file a formal response to the complaint. After that, the investigation will officially begin.
Hunter wrote his Facebook post calling Lewis a “racist pig” on Jan. 14, amid a well-publicized feud between the congressman and then-president-elect Donald Trump. In the post, Hunter also referred to Democrats as “Demonrats” and a “bunch of idiots.”
Protesters have called for Hunter’s resignation at all three Board of Commissioners meetings since The Atlanta-Journal Constitution first published screenshots of his posts. They plan to do the same at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday.
Hunter has apologized for his “choice of words” but has repeatedly said he won’t leave his post.
Seth Weathers, a consultant who has acted as Hunter’s spokesman, has previously downplayed the complaint filed against the commissioner. On Feb. 6, he wondered if “the filing attorneys really passed the bar.”
He was equally defiant Friday night. If not more so.
“I hope the opposition attorneys aren’t charging the misled individuals who filed this unconstitutional claim,” Weathers wrote in a text message to The AJC. “Nobody wants them to go into debt based on false hope from opportunistic attorneys.”
Helen Kim Ho, one of the attorneys who filed the complaint, said Friday that she and colleague Christine Koehler are working pro bono.
Koehler told The AJC she was “pleased to hear” it had “cleared the first hurdle.”
“We look forward to learning that the ethics board has been empaneled and to receiving Mr. Hunter's answer to this complaint,” she wrote in an email.
The hearing officer appointed to determine if the case should move forward was Ken Jarrard, a local attorney. The technical requirements of a Gwinnett ethics complaint are relatively simple — they include specifically identifying the code sections that were allegedly violated, showing the complainant would be “competent to testify” and providing appropriate supporting documents.
“Based upon my review, I have concluded that the Complaint meets the technical requirements set forth ...,” Jarrard wrote in his letter to Gwinnett County Attorney William Linkous. “I have made no determinations, however, regarding the merits of the Complaint or where the facts alleged are true or are sufficient to state a claim of unethical conduct — as such would be outside the confines of the Hearing Officer’s role.”
Jarrard’s letter to Linkous was dated Feb. 13 but was not provided to The AJC until shortly after 5:30 p.m. Friday, despite multiple inquiries throughout the week about the status of the complaint process.