Lawyer abandons fraught DeKalb ethics board

Bonnie Levine, general counsel for the DeKalb County Board of Ethics since May 2022, resigned that position March 3, 2023.

Credit: DeKalb County Board of Ethics

Credit: DeKalb County Board of Ethics

Bonnie Levine, general counsel for the DeKalb County Board of Ethics since May 2022, resigned that position March 3, 2023.

The lawyer for the long-troubled DeKalb County Board of Ethics resigned Friday, latest in a rash of recent resignations that has left the tumultuous board without a legal quorum.

Bonnie Levine, hired as the board’s general counsel in May 2022, quoted the band Rush’s song “Freewill” as the gist of her letter: “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

Failure to recognize that principle led to the board’s dysfunction and constant turnover, both among staff and volunteer board members, she wrote.

“At present, no one wants to admit that they are my client except the four individuals that, fueled by a narrative of two bossy young ladies too big for their britches, acted against my client’s interests for many months,” Levine’s resignation says, sarcastically describing herself and former board chair Alex Joseph. “Accordingly, my only remaining ‘client’ is the public.”

Levine referred to the alleged attitudes of some other board members toward her and Joseph, specifically including alternate member Bill Clark.

The board’s two remaining full members and two alternates, including Clark, did not immediately respond to emailed questions Friday.

Joseph has said in a memo that on Jan. 12 Clark told her “I have tried to give you every benefit of the doubt and covered for your inexperience for a year now … I have been a lawyer for more than three times as long as you have so your (sic) hanging your hat on your minute as a baby lawyer carrying someone’s briefcase as a government lawyer adds no validity to your opinions.”

Clark made that comment via text message, Levine said.

Joseph has been a member of the Georgia Bar since 2013 and is a former federal prosecutor. Levine has been an attorney since 2007. After less than a year as ethics board chair, Joseph quit when her attempt to remove Clark was not backed by a board majority.

“I am concerned that the board seems determined to conduct business in closed door meetings” she said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “In my opinion, all discussions should take place on the record. The ethics board should be a model of transparent, accessible government.”

Overuse of closed, or executive, sessions by the board has been a topic of discussion among members. But DeKalb’s volunteer ethics board has been a source of turmoil for years. A 2018 lawsuit that challenged how some members were appointed put the board on hiatus for more than two years. It was reconstituted in 2021. Since then several board members have come and gone. The body was effectively placed on hold for several more months when longtime chief ethics officer Stacey Kalberman, a full-time employee, quit in early 2022. Her replacement is Elisa Murphy.

According to an annual report by Murphy, posted on the board’s website Feb. 6, Joseph took over the board following the resignation of chair Lonnie Edwards and a brief stint as interim chair by Moskowitz.

Kalberman resigned in February 2022, a month before her term was set to expire, but Murphy herself did not become chief ethics officer until October, her report says.

Meanwhile former deputy ethics officer LaTonya Nix Wiley was placed on leave in April 2022 and filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. That is still pending, but an outside law firm the board hired determined the complaint was unsubstantiated, Murphy wrote.

Following Joseph’s resignation the board’s next meeting was canceled. Now five of the seven full board members have resigned in the last two weeks, including Joseph.

Board member Candace Walker quit Feb. 14, followed two days later by vice chair David Moskowitz. Both cited board dysfunction. In his resignation letter Moskowitz expressed support for Joseph and for removing Clark.

Moskowitz urged other members to quit, and Shawanda Reynolds-Cobb and Candace Rogers resigned too.

That leaves only two full members, Nadine Ali and Rosa Waymon; and two alternates, Clark and Carthea Simelton-Treminio. Board rules say alternates can only temporarily fill seats as appointed by the board chair – and the chair’s position has been vacant since Joseph’s departure.

In recent emails with board members, Levine agreed the board needed a “fresh start” and said she would “be happy to be part of that joint resignation.”

On Feb. 28 Levine, still acting as the board’s general counsel, told staff to cut off the remaining board members’ official email access.

“It was necessary to protect the staff, to prevent irreparable harm from your calling a meeting or giving the staff illegal instructions,” she wrote to those members the following day. “If only you had been this committed to accessing county email when the chair and I requested that you read it before meetings!”

Levine said she told remaining members and alternates they must abstain from any official action, to reduce legal risk from “perceived conflicts or challenges to quorum.”

If they take any action in private, they could violate their own ordinances, Georgia’s open meetings law and the board’s own internal rules.

The board also faces a federal lawsuit from Wiley, accusing the ethics board of racial discrimination and retaliation – including many of the same allegations in her EEOC complaint.

In her suit Wiley calls the outside probe a sham and cites the board’s Jan. 19 elimination of her position as proof of retaliation. She had been on paid administrative leave for months before that. Wiley alleges the decision to place her on leave was made in a closed-door session without a legal quorum.

Prior to Wiley’s dismissal, Joseph said in a memo that the ethics board’s two other full-time employees should be able to handle the workload. But in her own resignation as board chair Joseph said though she did not believe Wiley faced unlawful discrimination or retaliation, her “perception of hostility is sincere.”

Since Murphy’s arrival she presented 12 cases to the board, some of which dated to 2016, her report says.

“The remainder of the cases have pending actions in state or federal courts. The Ethics Officer and Ethics Board agreed and has (sic) a history of holding those pending cases in abeyance until the court makes its final determination,” Murphy wrote.