Ex-DeKalb commissioner says ethics hearing would muddy criminal case

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton speaks during a meeting in 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton speaks during a meeting in 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton wants to stop a hearing by the county’s ethics board, saying it could interfere with her federal criminal case that’s set to go to trial early next year.

An attorney representing Barnes Sutton — who is currently awaiting trial on federal extortion and bribery charges — asked DeKalb Chief Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson this week to issue a temporary restraining order against the local ethics board.

The move comes after the board, which was only recently reassembled after a lengthy period of legal limbo, scheduled a Nov. 17 final hearing in a pair of years-old ethics cases against Barnes Sutton.

Those cases include a 2014 complaint accusing the former commissioner of misusing a county purchasing card, and another from 2016 accusing her of improperly accepting “in-kind memberships” to a local YMCA.

The ethics matters are not explicitly tied to Barnes Sutton’s federal criminal case, in which she is charged with taking a total of $1,000 in bribes from a subcontractor working on a county project. But attorney Dwight Thomas wrote in his new motion that they “were in fact investigated by the FBI and are part of the overall discovery provided” in the federal case.

Thomas wrote that, if Barnes Sutton testified or produced evidence in front of the ethics board, she would compromise her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in federal court.

Thomas cited a statute that says federal prosecutors could be allowed to use “evidence of any other crime, wrong or act” to establish “proof of motive, opportunity, intent” or other similar factors in the criminal case.

That case was originally scheduled for trial in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta in Feb. 2020, but was pushed back a few months as the former commissioner sought a new court-appointed attorney. (Thomas is not representing Barnes Sutton in the federal case.)

Then COVID-19 hit, wreaking havoc on the court system and forcing the trial to be reset several more times.

It’s currently scheduled to begin on Feb. 22, 2022.

Thomas’ new motion, which could be discussed in DeKalb Superior Court next week, asks that the ethics board be ordered to stand down until the federal trial is complete.

But it’s also part of a broader, years-long fight against the board itself.

The lawsuit in which Thomas filed his recent motion is the same one that led to a 2018 Georgia Supreme Court ruling deeming unconstitutional the use of private entities to appoint some ethics board members.

The board — which has the power to issue censures, reprimands and fines against county employees and elected officials — subsequently remained dormant for more than two years. It was only revived earlier this year, after DeKalb voters approved a Nov. 2020 referendum that tweaked the appointment process and made other changes to county ethics laws.

Even now, Thomas has outstanding motions asking Judge Jackson to disband the ethics board yet again — or at least prohibit it from pursuing complaints that were brought under its previous iterations.