Corruption claims set tone in DeKalb sheriff’s election

Vernon Jones (left) and Dekalb Sheriff Jeff Mann square off in a debate at the PBA 30 studios on July 10. DeKalb’s former CEO, Jones, is trying to regain power by unseating Sheriff Jeff Mann, a career insider who rose through the ranks. They’ll face off July 22 in the special election to run the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. KDJOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Vernon Jones (left) and Dekalb Sheriff Jeff Mann square off in a debate at the PBA 30 studios on July 10. DeKalb’s former CEO, Jones, is trying to regain power by unseating Sheriff Jeff Mann, a career insider who rose through the ranks. They’ll face off July 22 in the special election to run the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. KDJOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

A history of crime in the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown was shot and killed in his front yard in December 2000 after defeating incumbent Sheriff Sidney Dorsey in that year’s election. Brown had pledged to clean up corruption and kickbacks in the sheriff’s office during his campaign. Dorsey was convicted of ordering Brown’s killing, and he’s serving a life sentence.

Three of Dorsey’s predecessors also had their careers end following criminal inquiries.

Lamar Martin was convicted of taking bribes in 1972. Ray Bonner, a sheriff in the mid-1970s, was acquitted in the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy in his front yard. Bonner lost the 1976 election to former Atlanta Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis.

Jarvis pleaded guilty in 1999 to participating in a kickback scheme to get cash from food vendors, bonding companies and maintenance firms that had contracts with the county jail while he was sheriff. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Watch the Atlanta Press Club debate for DeKalb County sheriff at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday on Public Broadcasting Atlanta Channel 30.

Both candidates for DeKalb County sheriff have the same warning for voters: Make the wrong choice in Tuesday’s runoff election, and it could mean a return to the bad old days.

In an office with a history of corruption, including the murder of its incoming sheriff 14 years ago, next week's election will help shape how the county is viewed, the candidates say.

Incumbent Sheriff Jeff Mann and challenger Vernon Jones advanced to the runoff after they emerged from a field of eight candidates vying to complete the term of former Sheriff Thomas Brown, who stepped down to run for Congress.

Jones, the extroverted former DeKalb CEO, says his integrity has been proven again and again because multiple investigations haven't resulted in charges against him. At the same time, Jones has questioned Mann's character, saying he has used employees for campaign work and failed to protect inmates from jailhouse violence.

Mann, a soft-spoken lawyer, denied those accusations, saying the claims have been drummed up by Jones to gain a political advantage.

The winner of the election will oversee a department responsible for running the county jail, protecting the courthouse, serving warrants and managing a $76 million annual budget.

To hear Jones tell it, only he can root out graft inside the sheriff’s office and crime in the streets.

“I’ve been investigated more than anyone in DeKalb County ever, and I’ve been cleared,” Jones said. “I’m the most vetted man out there. Jeff Mann is not the man for the job. He’s over his head.”

A special grand jury last year recommended further investigation of alleged bid rigging during Jones’ tenure as CEO. Jones has denied any wrongdoing.

Mann said he helped heal the sheriff's office in the dark time after Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown — who campaigned on a promise of cleaning up corruption — was gunned down in his front yard in 2000, three days before he was to take office. The defeated incumbent, Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, was convicted of ordering Brown's killing. Sheriff Thomas Brown, who is not related to Derwin Brown, recruited Mann in 2001 from the county attorney's office to handle legal affairs for the sheriff's office, and Mann was promoted to chief deputy in 2007.

“(Voters) don’t want a throwback from the old days who continues to have impropriety issues, who is currently recommended to be under investigation by the grand jury,” Mann said during a debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and televised on Public Broadcasting Atlanta. “It’s important for the citizens of DeKalb County to have someone with integrity, to have someone they trust.”

Mann, who served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, said voters should support him because he would increase staff training, improve public safety and work to reduce employee turnover. He said he obtained a 5 percent raise for detention officers on top of a 3 percent cost of living adjustment in this year’s county budget.

Jones, who became DeKalb’s first black chief executive when he was elected in 2000, said he would reassign administrative officers to crime-fighting duties, put nonviolent criminals on clean-up details and reduce overtime expenses.

Jones accused Mann, who became sheriff when Brown resigned in February, of running a jail where deputies beat inmates, morale is low and employees campaign for Mann when they should be working.

None of that is true, Brown said. Brown said Jones is creating an appearance of misconduct so that he can regain a foothold in politics. Jones has lost bids for U.S. Senate and U.S. House since leaving the job as DeKalb’s CEO in 2009 after serving two terms.

“Only Vernon Jones would want people to think there’s a perception of a bad sheriff’s office for his own political motives,” said Brown, who is now assisting Mann’s campaign. “Vernon Jones needs a job, and that’s why he’s running for sheriff.”

Mann acknowledged that the jail is understaffed, but he said incidents of deputy misconduct are limited and have led to disciplinary action.

To back up his allegations, Jones pointed to a lawsuit filed by a former sheriff’s office employee June 27 — fewer than four weeks before the election.

The lawsuit by Darling Thompson, an administrative coordinator who was fired March 19, said Mann forced her to contact campaign donors, create campaign announcements and coordinate a political fund-raising event during work hours. When Thompson said she felt uncomfortable with the assignments, her concerns were dismissed and she was directed to do as she was told, she said.

Mann denied Thompson’s assertions, saying he prohibits campaigning while government employees are on the job.

“People are placed in positions of power, and that power is very much abused every single day at the DeKalb Sheriff’s Office,” Thompson said in an interview. “I’m hoping that my lawsuit, and me speaking up against an entire county, will change this in every agency.”

Thompson said she’s not taking sides in the election and that she filed the lawsuit in an effort to get her job back. To show evidence of campaign-related work Thompson did while working for Mann, her attorney provided a draft of a thank-you letter she said she sent to one of Mann’s donors.

During the May 20 election, 40 percent of DeKalb voters supported Mann and 22 percent backed Jones.

The winner of Tuesday’s election will fill the remainder of Brown’s four-year term, which lasts through 2016.