Family ties bind metro Atlanta government employees

Officials see no problems despite hundreds of relatives on payrolls

Gwinnett County lets one elected official be the boss of his own girlfriend. An Atlanta city councilman votes on government spending that funds the paychecks of his brothers and sisters.

In Clayton, your brother can be a co-worker, and your dad — the County Commission chairman — can be your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.

Welcome to metro Atlanta, where local government is a family affair, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.

In the last three years alone, five area city and county governments hired at least 770 relatives of current employees. Those hires took place as thousands of metro residents struggled to find work, raising questions about whether family ties trump good government.

Many more family members were already on government payrolls. About 1,700 employees of six governments examined appear to live together, judging by home addresses; most share the same last names. In one DeKalb County division, one of every 10 employees has a co-worker who is a relative, the AJC found.

It’s nearly impossible to determine how many other local government workers have family ties. No one consistently tracks them, and safeguards to protect taxpayers are limited and outdated, the newspaper found.

Officials say the fix is not in when it comes to government hiring. Co-workers meet on the job and marry; others carry on family traditions of government service.

But Georgia has a long legacy of scandals involving nepotism.

In Douglas County, a former secretary in the District Attorney’s Office was indicted last month on 58 fraud and theft charges, including allegations she put in fraudulent claims for payment for her daughter, who was an intern. Fayette schools Superintendent Joseph “Jody” Barrow Jr. recently sparked controversy when his wife was hired for a front-office job paying more than $75,000 a year.

A grand jury investigation last fall in Clayton County alleges that officials used the power of their office to hire friends or family. Complaints of nepotism were among a host of problems that led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to suspend the accreditation of the Clayton and DeKalb school districts in recent years.

Experts say nepotism can cheat taxpayers of the most qualified employees. It also has other hidden costs. It can create discipline problems, damage morale of other workers and lead to conflicts of interest. It can even open the door to fraud by breaking down checks and balances.

Even the appearance of family favoritism, the experts say, is enough to tarnish a government’s credibility and warp how employees make decisions.

“At any point, there can be a scandal,” said Robert Wechsler, an expert at City Ethics, which advises local governments on ethics issues.

Local governments are vulnerable to abuse because of nepotism policies that have significant blind spots, the AJC found. For example, Gwinnett is the only local government the AJC examined that bans elected officials’ relatives from being hired.

Only Atlanta covers domestic partners in its nepotism policy. Elsewhere, employees can even supervise their significant others, so long as they’re not married.

Clayton County prohibits spouses, parents, children and siblings from working in the same departments, but not more distant relations like grandparents, nieces or uncles. And even close relatives can serve in large departments as long as they don’t work in the same division.

Government policies on posting jobs also may give the edge to insiders. Many openings are posted only on local governments’ own web sites; government officials say they get plenty of applicants without advertising more broadly.

Some positions, officials acknowledge, may not be posted at all.

No ill-intent necessary

Government officials insist that hiring decisions are based on merit, not family relationships.

That’s what Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeffrey Turner says about his three sons.

“I’m not going to ever require anybody to hire anybody,” Turner said.

But Turner, who previously served as the county’s police chief and director of its police academy, acknowledged the relationship might have helped his sons.

His son Christopher was hired as a part-time maintenance worker last year and promoted to full time in March. His son Brandon got a part-time maintenance job in May. Both have held seasonal parks maintenance jobs in the past, beginning when Turner was police chief.

Two years ago, after he retired from the academy and before he was elected chairman, Turner asked the county’s senior services director to give a third son, Ryan, a summer job, according to internal emails. Turner said his son did not get the position, but he did get a seasonal parks job in 2010.

The chairman said his sons had to earn the jobs on their own. But local government ethics expert Wechsler said the damage is done as soon as an elected official asks for a job for a relative. Workers can feel pressured, he said, regardless of the intent.

“Even if they just say, ‘Hey, take a look at my son,’ it might be read as implying, ‘You better do it and if you don’t you’ll be in trouble,’ ” Wechsler said.

Nepotism also erodes trust in government, Wechsler said. Constituents think elected officials care more about helping themselves and families than their communities.

To dispel concerns and avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest, Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond said he lists in ethics filings his sisters and brothers who make a living through city government.

His sister Julia Bond works for the Department of Parks and Recreation; siblings Jeff Bond and Phyllis McMillan work for city contractors; his brother Horace Bond, a city jail lieutenant, started there five years before Michael Bond’s first term in office.

“I want full disclosure. I want people to know,” Bond said.“I don’t want someone trying to hire someone related to me thinking they will have greater sway over me. And that’s not something I have nurtured.”

But avoiding perception problems can be tricky.

While records show Michael Bond has abstained from certain votes that could have impacted his jail lieutenant brother, since 2010 he has voted “yes” on at least $80 million worth of airport and water contracts involving KHAFRA and BenchMark Management, employers for Jeff Bond and McMillan.

Both vendors contributed in 2013 to Michael Bond’s campaign. And as recently as June, the councilman authored legislation backing a $3.2 million watershed contract involving KHAFRA.

BenchMark failed to return repeated calls from the AJC. KHAFRA President Val Bates said Bond’s position played no roles in the hires.

Pros and cons

Family hiring is nothing new, and isn’t always a bad thing. Generations of children have followed parents into police and fire departments across the country. It’s a pool of enthusiastic recruits for the departments and a source of pride for families.

“I’m kind of a sentimental guy,” said Kevin Keough, a Gwinnett firefighter whose sons Jordan and Chad work in the department. “Just seeing them in this uniform makes me proud.”

Often family members hear about jobs from relatives who already work for an agency and have good things to say.

“They realize the county is a good employer,” said Cobb Human Resources Director Tony Hagler. “They still have to pass the selection processes and meet minimum requirements.”

In the best situations, relatives are known, trusted and show greater commitment, said Robert Jones, a Missouri State University psychology professor.

But when the process is abused, hiring relatives can have serious consequences.

Last year a Clayton County special grand jury cited unspecified examples of nepotism and self-dealing it said were rampant in county government. Among its recommendations: Job candidates who don’t pass background checks shouldn’t be hired just because their relative works in a position of authority.

Clayton was the only one of the six governments the AJC examined that didn’t provide a list of relatives it had hired.

This spring in Douglas County, amid a GBI investigation into allegations of nepotism and questionable spending, the acting district attorney fired the secretary and two of her other children who worked for the office, as well as another employee.

Some effects can be more subtle. City Ethics’ Wechsler said qualified candidates fail to apply for government jobs because they think they don’t have a chance against a powerful bureaucrat’s family. Good employees leave because they think they’ll be passed over for a promotion in favor of a relative.

“The ramifications are huge, and you never actually see many of them because it’s about what doesn’t happen,” Wechsler said.

Workarounds

Governments can guard themselves against some the worst of nepotism by using time-tested methods such as civil service exams and personality testing that weed out unqualified candidates. Atlanta and other metro governments, though, do not require them. DeKalb only tests certain applicants, such as police or firefighter recruits.

Local governments say they have other ways to protect against nepotism problems.

In Cobb, for example, if someone applies for a job at a department where a relative works, they’re automatically screened out, according to Hagler, the HR director. If employees in the same department marry or otherwise become related, one of them has to be transferred or resign.

DeKalb doesn’t have such a prohibition against relatives working in the same department. Instead, it relies on a sometimes complicated balancing act.

In its sanitation division, where one in every 10 employees – nearly 80 people – has a relative as a co-worker, managers try to distribute family members across different chains of command. Officials acknowledge the sheer number of relatives causes some logistical challenges, but they say it’s manageable because sanitation is a large department.

Fulton’s policy discourages the hiring of relatives and relies on the personnel director and county manager to approve exceptions. The personnel department says it researches each request to ensure it complies with county policies and tries to get a recommendation to the county manager as quickly as possible. The AJC found such approvals are routine, with the entire process often taking less than a day, and sometimes mere minutes.

Even strict policies can’t cover every situation. Hiring buddies of employees and elected officials can cause as much trouble as nepotism, but family relationships are the easiest to address in policy, said Gwinnett Human Resources Director Scott Fuller.

One example of the limits of nepotism policies: Gwinnett’s elected Clerk of Court Richard Alexander lives with his secretary, Lori Taylor. County policy prohibits relatives within a department from reporting to one another, but because Alexander and Taylor are not married they’re not violating it, according to Fuller. And even if it was a violation, Fuller said the policy doesn’t cover independent elected officials like Alexander.

“There may be very valid reasons to be concerned or not,” Fuller said, “but it is not a violation of county policy.”

Taylor was promoted to her current job by the former court clerk, Tom Lawler, who died in office. County commissioners appointed Alexander to the job in the wake of Lawler’s death, and he won election to a new term in 2012.

Taylor said she’s a hard worker and feels she has to make an extra effort “because I don’t want anyone to ever think I’m receiving any kind of benefit from my relationship.”

Anderson said if the couple marry, one of them likely will leave the department. In the meantime, he thinks their relationship causes no problems. He said Taylor also reports to the department’s chief deputy clerk and its office manager. The chief deputy evaluates Taylor’s performance.

“I’ve been very clear to say, `treat her like you do any other employee,” Alexander said.

“I haven’t had anybody that’s complained about it,” he added. “I suppose that since I am in charge of the office that could be a dampener to a complaint. But I think everybody likes her quite well.”

Staff writer Tammy Joyner contributed to this article.

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Staff writer Tammy Joyner contributed to this article.

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