AJC Watchdog: Knock, knock — more subpoenas in DeKalb

DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson is seen in this video advertisement for the DeKalb International Food and Music Festival. An account Watson used to contribute to the festival is under investigation by the state ethics commission. Source: YouTube.com
DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson is seen in this video advertisement for the DeKalb International Food and Music Festival. An account Watson used to contribute to the festival is under investigation by the state ethics commission. Source: YouTube.com

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners has received so many subpoenas over the past several years you would think they would build a separate entrance for process servers.

Well, knock knock.

The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, commonly known as the state ethics commission, has subpoenaed records of secret bank accounts created for several DeKalb politicians by the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce.

The accounts were made available to commissioners and at least one state lawmaker to use for some vaguely worded purposes the chamber says “would have ultimately benefited the business community.”

In truth, the accounts were also used in a way that benefited the politicians by giving them a stream of unreported money to spend in their districts to sponsor events and donate to local causes.

So far subpoenas have been issued for bank records for accounts for Commissioner Stan Watson and former Commissioner Elaine Boyer. Boyer is currently in prison serving time on unrelated corruption charges.

But records show that Commissioner Larry Johnson and State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, also had accounts managed by the DeKalb chamber.

The chamber says there was nothing wrong with the accounts and characterizes its role as pass-through agency — essentially holding money donated for the Waston, Boyer and the rest to use as they saw fit. Nonetheless, the chamber ended its participation with the accounts in 2014 after determining that they “did not align with the organization’s mission or business objectives.”

The state ethics commission is looking into whether the accounts violated state law by providing money to the politicians without publicly reporting it as political spending.

Channel 2 Action News reported the existence of the accounts in December, prompting William Perry of the good government group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs to file a complaint with the ethics commission. It alleged the DeKalb politicians used the money to preserve their seats contributing to local charities and non-profits.

Watson appears to have made the most of his account with more than $92,000 passing through it over two and half years, much of which apparently went toward the commissioner’s sponsorship of the DeKalb International Food and Music Festival.

The festival, held annually in the Northlake Mall area, prominently features Watson as a sponsor and spokesman in video advertisements. Perry said such spending appears to be "clear campaigning."

“I consider it campaign contributions that weren’t reported,” he said. “At the end of the day these folks were doing it to raise their profile.”

Watson did not return my telephone and email messages asking for his side of the story.

No accountability

Politicians do this all the time, contributing to Boy Scout Troops, sponsoring prayer breakfasts and buying flowers for constituents. Usually they pay for it with campaign donations and all of it is publicly disclosed in their campaign finance report. Not so with these accounts.

There is no accounting for the source of the funds — and that’s important. If businesses that bid on county contracts donated money for commissioners’ pet projects, that’s something voters have a right to know. And although the chamber discontinued its role in these accounts, the practice continued.

DeKalb chamber President Katerina Taylor said in August 2014, the chamber transferred a balance of $13,477 on Watson’s account to the Metro Atlanta YMCA at Watson’s request.

YMCA chief financial officer Billy Holley said Watson made arrangements with the director of the South DeKalb YMCA to transfer the money, but no one cleared it with senior YMCA management. Holley said he didn’t even know about it until last December and since then he has been trying to figure out how to undo it.

“That’s not really our mission at the Y,” he said. “We don’t serve as a fiscal agent for other entities.”

Holley did not have any information about payments to Watson and said the money was deposited into the YMCA’s general account.

Prior to her imprisonment, Boyer asked that her account — records for which have not been made public — be transferred to the Decide DeKalb Development Authority. Spokeswoman Araba Dowell said the authority took over the account — dubbed the “employee picnic account” — in October 2013 with a balance of $13,680.

Today the balance has been spent down to $9,541. Given that Boyer is in the federal prison in Marianna, Fla., until May, the account is dormant and Dowell said the authority board is trying to decide what to do with it.

‘It’s a fairness issue’

The accounts for Commissioner Johnson and Rep. Kendrick were smaller, but they’ll likely receive the same scrutiny when the ethics commission begins its investigation.

Records show Kendrick used her account to sponsor a small business summit in 2012, spending more than $3,600 in undisclosed contributions on the event. Announcements for the 2012 summit prominently carried Kendrick’s name and portrait.

Kendrick did not sponsor the 2013 summit, although her name appears on the organizing committee.

Accounting records show Johnson used his account in 2012 and 2013 to issue small grants of between $100 and $250 to various neighborhood organizations. All told, Johnson spent about $4,250.

Commissioner Nancy Jester came on the DeKalb commission in 2015 after the chamber ended its sponsorship of the accounts and said the “cozy” relationship between the commissioners and the chamber came as a surprise to her.

What if a political challenger wanted some money to sponsor an event and boost their candidacy, Jester asked. Would the chamber act as that candidate’s banker too?

“Why don’t they get the same treatment? It’s a fairness issue,” she said, describing the accounts as “some sort of soft campaign money.”

The ethics commission likely will be looking at the issue through a similar lens. The commission has the power to issue fines, but depending on what they find, ethics investigations can be referred to the Attorney General’s office for more investigation.

Either way, it’s another sign that DeKalb’s political leadership has a long way to go before it emerges from the cloud of scandal.