When Gwinnett’s District Attorney asked for the money to fund a public corruption investigator in 2012, one county commissioner was being sentenced to federal prison. Another had left his post in lieu of indictment, and a third was under investigation for bribery.
Now, nearly two years after a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent was promoted into the role, that office has settled with Kevin Kenerly, the commissioner investigated for bribery, and prosecuted a Dacula city councilman who used his county credit card to buy pizza and other personal items. It has prosecuted a police officer for stealing prescription drugs entered into evidence and a sheriff’s deputy who used his position for personal financial gain.
Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she supports D.A. Danny Porter’s office in the “strong stance” he has taken against public workers and officials who are taking advantage of their positions.
“We want to make sure the D.A.’s office is adequately staffed to investigate accusations against elected officials,” she said. “I think it’s important his office is doing what they need to do.”
There are still some residents who are unhappy with the disposition of their own cases, and some who think the D.A.’s office isn’t doing enough. In addition to the cases that have gone forward, and those that remain under investigation, more than a dozen cases have been considered and rejected for various reasons.
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Though Porter said he goes into each investigation assuming each accusation is true, they are not always crimes. If they are, they cannot always be prosecuted.
Porter said he declined to prosecute former county Commissioner Mike Beaudreau for allegedly charging the county for expenses he should not have, including dinners with his parents, because there was not enough evidence to win the case. It was “so old and so small and so difficult to prove,” Porter said.
“If I can’t prove Beaudreau did anything wrong, he didn’t do anything wrong,” Porter said. “The good thing is that those people over there now understand I’m going to look.”
Porter said since the economy has picked up, he has seen fewer citizen complaints about elected officials. Local officials have also taken steps to improve ethics. At the county level, the land-buying policy changed to be more transparent. Commissioners have adopted a new code of conduct, as well as an ethics policy designed to keep them on the up-and-up.
“Elected officials, now it’s on their minds,” Porter said. “They know I’m here. They hear my footsteps.”
Still, some residents think there is more that could be done.
Sabrina Smith, chairman of the open government consortium Georgia Watchdogs, noted that Gwinnett does not have an ethics board where residents can take complaints.
Smith said she is concerned that the investigator, Michael Pearson, is not proactive enough, choosing to respond to complaints instead of initiate his own investigations. As a result, the D.A.’s office can get caught looking into petty complaints.
For example, Snellville: Since the position began, the D.A.’s office determined that it wasn’t a crime for someone to leave a “Reserved for Al Jazeera” sign on the chair of a city councilman of Middle Eastern descent. An accusation that the mayor misused her county email address found that she did not, and Porter’s office declined to investigate a city employee for perjury when he admitted on the stand he had lied on his resume.
An investigation into a city councilman who was accused of owing back taxes, though, is ongoing.
Smith said she worries that while investigators are busy with small accusations, major breaches are being overlooked.
“Personally, it doesn’t make me feel any more confident,” she said.
The biggest change as a result of the new position is speed, Porter said. In the past, complaints would often languish while investigators focused on other things. Now, Porter said the position means those cases that are unfounded are disposed of faster.
The investigation into Greg Reeves, the Dacula city councilman who bought personal items on a county card, was completed in two days, Porter said.
In Dacula, Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks said he had adopted a written policy about what county cards could be used for, instead of relying on a verbal one, as had been done in the past.
Though Reeves made complete restitution, Wilbanks said, he was still “flabbergasted” that the former councilman had misused his card in the first place.
“People know better,” the mayor said. “I don’t know why they don’t do better.”