DeKalb Ethics Board says it has purview over harassment complaints

DeKalb Board of Ethics Chair Daniel DeWoskin speaks at a board meeting earlier this year. (Rebecca Breyer)

DeKalb Board of Ethics Chair Daniel DeWoskin speaks at a board meeting earlier this year. (Rebecca Breyer)

After reviewing county ethics laws, the DeKalb Board of Ethics says it has determined that it has the power to review sexual harassment complaints involving public officials.

The board's review was spurred by a call Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman says she received from a citizen. That citizen, she said, was bothered by an October finding that DeKalb Commissioner Gregory Adams had violated the county's sexual harassment policy and wondered if the board had the authority to take action against the commissioner.

Adams has not been charged with a crime, but investigators recommended he attend sexual harassment training. His accuser, Ashlee Wright, is also pursing a $750,000 settlement from the county.

An ethics complaint would add a new wrinkle to that issue, as well as represent a shift in the types of cases the Board of Ethics normally reviews. The board has primarily received complaints that involve conflicts of interest and misuse of county resources.

“Do we open jurisdiction up that wide?” Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman asked board members during Wednesday’s meeting. The answer she received was a resounding “yes.”

“I think it fits within the parameters of the purpose of why this board was set up,” Chairman Dan DeWoskin said.

This decision comes even as the Ethics Board fights challenges to its existence, and critics say it is another example of the board overstepping its authority.

“Sexual harassment has nothing to do with a business transaction or ethics in government,” attorney Dwight Thomas said. “If they are going to use that idea, they will have jurisdiction ad infinitum. What else?”

Thomas represents former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who filed a lawsuit arguing the Ethics Board operates illegally because members are appointed by outside groups like local universities and Leadership DeKalb County instead of elected officials. A superior court judge sided with Sutton, but the board has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Kalberman will write an advisory opinion clarifying the board’s position on its jurisdiction.

Robert James, an attorney for Wright, said he has not discussed filing an ethics complaint with her but would not rule out the possibility.

“Ashlee is concerned on multiple levels, not just making sure that she seeks justice and receives justice individually, but making sure there is punishment and accountability for Commissioner Adams’ actions,” he said. “And making sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”