Stung by a series of ethical, and perhaps criminal, lapses among DeKalb County employees and elected officials, interim County CEO Lee May announced Wednesday the creation of a full-time chief integrity officer, while signing an executive order tightening the county’s ethics rules.
May said the order “compiles and clarifies ethics rules for all employees of the administration.”
“I am beyond tired of reading about employees of DeKalb County violating the public’s trust and the law,” May said in an afternoon press conference. “We need more tools to ensure ethics and integrity in our county. I am sick and tired of where we are and what we’ve become.”
May’s comments came on the same day a South Carolina jury heard audio recordings of two businessmen on trial for racketeering discussing plans to bribe DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson. The men wanted to get work on the county’s $1.7 billion sewer system overhaul.
May said the new integrity officer would be responsible for training all county employees, fielding tips about unethical behavior and monitoring an ethics hotline. The position will have unilateral power to bring all ethics concerns to the attention of the Board of Ethics.
The integrity officer would not report to May or the board of commissioners, but rather the ethics board. May said that $97,000 would be set aside for the remainder of 2014 to fund the position, as well as pay for an administrative assistant and investigator.
“I firmly believe in due process and allowing the issues that have already been brought to the table to run their legal course,” May said. “Having said that, it’s the improper and possibly illegal activity in DeKalb’s ranks that we don’t know about that keeps me awake at night.”
On Tuesday, the ethics board broadened its investigations of county commissioners’ alleged spending abuses by, launching inquiries of two more elected officials.
The Ethics Board voted to look into complaints that Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton and Larry Johnson have put personal expenses on their taxpayer-backed Visa cards.
Another commissioner, Elaine Boyer, already faces a similar investigation into her use of a county-issued purchasing card, or P-card.
If the board concludes that the commissioners violated ethics rules, it could levy punishments ranging from reprimands to removals from office.
The board also elected to wait until former CEO Burrell Ellis’ trial concludes before considering his case. Ellis faces ethics complaints and criminal charges based on allegations that he pressured county vendors for campaign contributions. He faces trial in September.
“If you turn on television or read the newspaper, these stories have stained our community,” said John Ernst, chairman of the ethics board. “The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”
Still, some DeKalb residents are still leery of the plan.
“This is the dirtiest form of politics in DeKalb County,” said 73-year-old Rhea (Ray) Johnson, who has lived in DeKalb since 1972. “Lee is trying to influence the ethics board through the human resources department and the people who are going to end up being on the ethics board. It is horrible and goes along with everything else that is going wrong in the county.”
In his announcement, May also announced the creation of a new ethics policy for administration employees, particularly relating to gifts, meals, travel and tickets, including:
- Gifts are only allowed to be up to $40 per source.
- No source can give gifts totally more than $120 a year, except for awards or certificates, gifts from family members, gifts from other governments or gifts given to the county, not the individual.
- Meals can only be paid in connection with an official government purpose, otherwise the maximum is $40.
- Travel expenses can only be claimed for official government business.
- Tickets to sporting events are not to be accepted.
- Honoraria are not allowed.
“This is a big step in DeKalb County,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause. “And it shines a light on how ethics reform should be done.”