$9,000 fine for former DeKalb commissioner Watson warning to others

Members of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics said the $9,000 fine they levied against former Commissioner Stan Watson was partially to send a message to other elected officials that certain behaviors are no longer acceptable.

Watson is accused of using secret accounts to raise money from county vendors and using it to host community events that also promoted his re-election bid. The board found him guilty of two ethics violations: using public resources for campaign duties and for soliciting the county vendors.

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“We very much hope that this hearing itself, more than anything, is an educational tool so that the ethics expectations going forward will be understood by everyone,” county ethics officer Stacey Kalberman said shortly before the six ethics board members unanimously agreed on the fine.

The amount represents $1,000 each for both violations at four different events cited in an investigation report written by deputy ethics officer LaTonya Nix Wiley.

  • The "Easter Eggstravaganza" at Wade Walker Park in April 2014, where Watson used county letterhead to seek sponsorships from county vendors but required checks to be written to a private corporation he controlled. Watson's campaign was promoted during the event.
  • The Annual Health and Wellness Fair at Greater Travelers Rest Church (now known as House of Hope Atlanta) in August 2014 was financed in part through a $5,000 donation from the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority. Watson solicited the money weeks before voting on an extension of the hospital contract, investigators said. The donation was paid through an account at the South DeKalb Family YMCA at the same time the YMCA was seeking a $5 million partnership with the county.
  • The International Food Festival in October 2014 also used the YMCA account to deposit sponsorships. Watson is accused of telling his county staff to target county vendors for money.
  • The Annual Father's Day Golf Tournament at Sugar Creek Golf Course in June 2015 was advertised as being hosted by Watson and required participants to register using an email he used for political campaigns. Checks were written to his campaign fund although county resources were used to raise money, investigators said.

Watson was fined another $1,000 for requiring county employees during their working hours to take pictures of him submitting paperwork and paying the fees necessary to qualify to run for re-election in March 2014. Later, he used county resources to issue a press release about it, the investigation discovered.

Neither Watson nor anyone representing him attended Thursday’s hearing. Efforts to reach him on Friday were not successful.

Most of the testimony about fundraising activities during his tenure came from his former aide, Kelly Cato. Cato testified that Watson received from Kelvin Walton, the county's former purchasing director, a list of businesses with active contracts in DeKalb that staff used as a guide for soliciting donations for various events.

Money came in the form of checks sent to accounts controlled by Watson, but there was also cash that flowed during various events as paid entrance fees or other costs. Any cash that was collected went straight to Watson and staff had no way to account for what he did with it, Cato said.

“If it got into his hands, we never saw the money again,” she said.

The other witnesses during the hearing were Jay Vinicki, the county’s budget director, and purchasing department employee Felton Williams.

After about two hours of testimony, the Ethics Board deliberated and decided there was overwhelming evidence to cite Watson. Ethics staff was also directed to draft a “formal and harsh” public reprimand.