DeKalb Ethics Board investigating complaint against CEO candidate Bradshaw

DeKalb County CEO candidate Steve Bradshaw sits for an interview in Stone Mountain on Friday, March 22, 2024.   (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

DeKalb County CEO candidate Steve Bradshaw sits for an interview in Stone Mountain on Friday, March 22, 2024.   (Ben Gray /

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics is investigating a complaint filed against Commissioner Steve Bradshaw, who is running to be chief executive officer.

The board voted Thursday to proceed with a complaint alleging Bradshaw took a zoning vote in 2021 on a development in which he had personal interest because it abutted property he and his wife own. The complaint says Bradshaw failed to recuse himself against the advice of a former deputy ethics officer.

Chief Ethics Officer Elisa Murphy told the board the complaint appears to assert ethical violations. She recommended holding a probable cause hearing, the next step in the board’s investigatory process, to determine if Bradshaw violated the county’s ethics code and rules. That hearing is scheduled for June 20, the board’s next meeting.

The complaint was filed in April by Mike Cooper, a Stone Mountain resident who lives in Bradshaw’s District 4. In 2016, Bradshaw appointed Cooper to one term on the Community Council, a citizen’s group that makes recommendations to the planning commission. Cooper served on the council when the zoning issue originated.

The timing of the complaint, which falls within the ethics board’s four-year statute of limitations, has made the ethics allegations fodder in political debates between the three candidates vying for the chief executive officer’s seat. Early voting in the primary concludes Friday and Election Day is Tuesday.

One of his opponents, former District 7 Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, brought up the complaint publicly in a late April debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club. Bradshaw said then that the allegations were not true. In a subsequent statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he described the allegation as “scurrilous” and denied wrongdoing.

“It begs the question, if my actions were so egregious at that time (which they were not) why wait until now, during the throws of political campaign to try to make an issue of it?” Bradshaw said in a statement. “This strikes me as an act of desperation by a desperate campaign that wishes to distort and deflect.”

Cooper said the complaint speaks for itself and declined to comment.

In public comments at the ethics board’s April meeting, Cooper said he did not file the complaint sooner for a variety of reasons, including the board’s disarray. Five of the seven members resigned last year, leaving the seats vacant for several months during which the board didn’t conduct regular business. Another reason, Cooper said, was that until recently, the ethics board has met virtually since the start of the pandemic.

“I personally felt this complaint was too important to be argued in a Zoom call,” Cooper said.

Cooper has not donated to any of the chief executive officer candidates, according to public campaign finance filings. He did attend an event sponsored by Cochran-Johnson’s campaign.

The Board of Ethics has not made the complaint public, citing exemptions in the state’s public records law that allow pending investigative records to be withheld. Cooper provided a copy to the AJC upon request, and said he also provided it to three former elected officials cited in the complaint, including Cochran-Johnson.

The full complaint is 226 pages and deals with a property in the Cimarron subdivision off Erskine Road. Bradshaw and his wife, Diane, own a home in the neighborhood, according to property tax records, and their backyard would have abutted the proposed development, which called for construction of 63 townhomes.

The proposal prompted concerns from existing residents about sewer and drainage capacity, density and safety. Among those opposed, according to an email included in the complaint, was Diane Bradshaw, the commissioner’s wife, who wrote to the planning commission to say that she was opposed and that the development had the potential to have a “direct impact” to homeowners’ property values.

According to emails Cooper obtained through a public records request that were included with the complaint, Bradshaw asked then-Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman for advice in November 2020 about the appropriateness of participating in an upcoming zoning agenda item “that is in my neighborhood.”

Kalberman’s deputy responded in a letter to Bradshaw and said it was their opinion that “while no actual conflict of interest exists, a perceived conflict of interest exists.” Kalberman recommended Bradshaw recuse himself from any official action on the rezoning.

In other emails included in Cooper’s complaint, Bradshaw asked the ethics officers and county attorneys about his plans to abstain from voting and asked for the difference between a recusal and abstention.

“At this stage of the proceedings I do not necessarily want to totally foreclose my ability to participate in the future, since you agree that no actual conflict of interest exists,” Bradshaw wrote in a November 2020 email.

According to the emails, Deputy County Attorney Matthew Welch said a recusal is a more “encompassing term” that would remove Bradshaw from the matter entirely. But he said it was acceptable for Bradshaw to abstain.

When the issue came up at the next zoning meeting, Bradshaw, who was presiding over the meeting, gave the gavel to the deputy presiding officer and made a statement in which he said he would abstain from a vote because he lives in the neighborhood where the development was proposed.

In December 2020, the community council voted to defer approval because of outstanding concerns about the project. In January 2021, the planning commission recommended denying the application. Staff also recommended denying the application.

When the issue came before the Board of Commissioners in late January 2021, the applicant asked the board to defer making a decision. Bradshaw made a motion to accept the planning commission’s recommendation and deny the application, which the board unanimously approved.

The complaint alleges that Bradshaw failed to disclose his personal interest and made “misleading statements” over the course of the rezoning application’s consideration by not disclosing that his own property abutted the proposed development.

“Material facts were omitted or misstated in his request for the advisory opinion,” Cooper wrote.

The complaint also accuses Bradshaw of ignoring the deputy ethics officer’s recommendation that he recuse himself from votes on the matter.

Bradshaw has until Monday to formally respond to the complaint; he had not done so as of Friday morning.

In a statement, Bradshaw said he sought guidance from the county attorney and chief ethics officer as the matter made its way through the zoning process.

“The guidance that I received from our Ethics Officer was as follows: Because I had no financial interest in the subject property and no financial interest with the developer, I had no actual conflict of interest,” Bradshaw wrote. “Any subsequent actions of mine were done with this understanding.”

Bradshaw said his action was in line with recommendations from the community council, the planning commission and planning staff.

“At any point during this process the applicant could have withdrawn without prejudice. For whatever reasons they chose not to avail themselves of that option,” he said.

He said Kalberman, the former chief ethics officer, has endorsed him in the CEO race.

“I don’t think she would be supportive of me if the things that are alleged were true,” Bradshaw said.

In his statement, Bradshaw also criticized Cochran-Johnson, echoing concerns he raised during the Press Club debate that she skipped ahead of others to get a federal pandemic relief loan for a restaurant, which she denied. Cochran-Johnson told the AJC she didn’t own the restaurant, her her aunt did, which state business license records confirm.

Bradshaw also expressed concern over a past ethics complaint filed against Cochran-Johnson, in which she was accused of using promoting her eyeglasses business in a newsletter sent to constituents.

“If you look more closely, you will probably find more things of that nature in her operating habits,” Bradshaw wrote.

The anonymous complaint, filed in 2019, was dismissed in 2021; Kalberman said at the time that there appeared to be no intent by Cochran-Johnson to violate the code.

A separate complaint was submitted Thursday to the State Ethics Commission alleging Cochran-Johnson failed to submit her most recent campaign finance report before the deadline. The report was due April 30, with a grace period until May 7. Cochran-Johnson’s report is dated May 16. The complainant, Brenda Pace, shared a copy of the document with the AJC and said she supports Bradshaw in the CEO race.

In an email, Cochran-Johnson acknowledged it wasn’t submitted on time.

“When I began to record all the donors, it took far longer than expected to record the contributions,” she said. “I wanted the report to be accurate. I wanted to get it right.”

The third candidate in the race, longtime District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, has faced accusations of violating the ethics code as well. In 2014, he was accused of misusing his county charge card for personal benefit. That complaint also was dismissed.