DeKalb Commissioner Boyer resigns, admits, ‘I’ve abused my position’


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What’s next

A special election will be held to fill Elaine Boyer’s seat on the DeKalb County Commission. The position represents about 140,000 residents in the northern part of the county, including Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Dunwoody and Tucker.

It’s unclear when the special election will occur. DeKalb’s organization act calls for an election within 60 days of a vacancy, but a state law indicates special elections for county offices should be held in conjunction with the Nov. 4 general election.

“Certainly a special election is in the offing, but the timetable is uncertain,” said DeKalb spokesman Burke Brennan.

Allegations of corruption in DeKalb County

  • Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges that he pressured county contractors for campaign contributions and punished those who didn't give. He has denied wrongdoing.
  • Last year, former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction in a racketeering case, and he's currently appealing a judge's decision to send him to jail. Another former school official and her husband were convicted of racketeering.
  • The DeKalb County Board of Ethics has been investigating allegations involving Commissioners Elaine Boyer, Kathie Gannon, Larry Johnson, Jeff Rader and Sharon Barnes Sutton. The board has the power to suspend or remove officials if it finds they've broken ethical rules.
  • A special grand jury report released last fall found indications of bid-rigging, kickbacks and theft surrounding DeKalb County's $1.7 billion water and sewer upgrade project. The report recommended further criminal investigation of 12 individuals, but only Ellis has been charged.
  • DeKalb County's most well-known scandal occurred in late 2000, when Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown was gunned down in his front yard three days before he was to take office. The defeated incumbent, Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, was convicted of ordering Brown's killing.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Since early this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been scrutinizing discretionary spending by local government officials. The newspaper’s investigation began with an examination of expenses paid by government purchasing cards, which act like debit cards and draw down taxpayer funds.

While the AJC drilled into charges in several local governments, a series of reimbursements by DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer quickly stood out, showing she had used county funds for what amounted to bridge loans. Reporter Johnny Edwards pored over transaction logs for Boyer’s Visa card, working to decipher entries. He then sought receipts for questionable expenses, but Boyer could produce few. In March and April, the AJC reported that Boyer had made thousands of dollars in personal purchases with the card. While she repaid some within days, weeks or months, she didn’t repay about $8,000 in personal expenses until after the AJC identified them. Meanwhile, the FBI began an investigation, and the county agreed to audit 10 years of spending.

In May, Edwards turned his attention to purchases that county commissioners can authorize on their own, drawing on taxpayer funding for their offices. Boyer’s purchases again stood out. The AJC has filed numerous open records requests to trace the spending and interviewed dozens of people to try to account for what taxpayers may have received in return for the money. So far, Edwards has found more than $90,000 in expenses Boyer authorized for which no work product can be located.

Allegations of corruption in DeKalb County

  • Suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges that he pressured county contractors for campaign contributions and punished those who didn't give. He has denied wrongdoing.
  • Last year, former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction in a racketeering case, and he's currently appealing a judge's decision to send him to jail. Another former school official and her husband were convicted of racketeering.
  • The DeKalb County Board of Ethics has been investigating allegations involving Commissioners Elaine Boyer, Kathie Gannon, Larry Johnson, Jeff Rader and Sharon Barnes Sutton. The board has the power to suspend or remove officials if it finds they've broken ethical rules.
  • A special grand jury report released last fall found indications of bid-rigging, kickbacks and theft surrounding DeKalb County's $1.7 billion water and sewer upgrade project. The report recommended further criminal investigation of 12 individuals, but only Ellis has been charged.
  • DeKalb County's most well-known scandal occurred in late 2000, when Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown was gunned down in his front yard three days before he was to take office. The defeated incumbent, Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, was convicted of ordering Brown's killing.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Since early this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been scrutinizing discretionary spending by local government officials. The newspaper’s investigation began with an examination of expenses paid by government purchasing cards, which act like debit cards and draw down taxpayer funds.

While the AJC drilled into charges in several local governments, a series of reimbursements by DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer quickly stood out, showing she had used county funds for what amounted to bridge loans. Reporter Johnny Edwards pored over transaction logs for Boyer’s Visa card, working to decipher entries. He then sought receipts for questionable expenses, but Boyer could produce few. In March and April, the AJC reported that Boyer had made thousands of dollars in personal purchases with the card. While she repaid some within days, weeks or months, she didn’t repay about $8,000 in personal expenses until after the AJC identified them. Meanwhile, the FBI began an investigation, and the county agreed to audit 10 years of spending.

In May, Edwards turned his attention to purchases that county commissioners can authorize on their own, drawing on taxpayer funding for their offices. Boyer’s purchases again stood out. The AJC has filed numerous open records requests to trace the spending and interviewed dozens of people to try to account for what taxpayers may have received in return for the money. So far, Edwards has found more than $90,000 in expenses Boyer authorized for which no work product can be located.

HOLDING THEM ACCOUNTABLE. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first examined questionable spending by former DeKalb Comissioner Elaine Boyer this spring, uncovering thousands of dollars in personal expenses charged to her county-issued purchasing card. Consequently, federal investigators have begun looking into how Boyer and others have spent public money.

Elaine Boyer touted herself as a crusader for fiscal conservatism, railing against government waste and blasting other elected officials’ spending.

But late Monday, with an FBI investigation pending and questions mounting about her own spending of taxpayer money, the longtime DeKalb County commissioner abruptly resigned.

“I’ve betrayed the people and I’ve abused my position of power,” she told Channel 2 Action News in an exclusive interview.

“It’s a very hard decision, and I’m heartbroken and saddened, but I need to resign,” she said.

Boyer did not detail what she had done or discuss whether it was related to the federal probe or to a continuing Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation of her spending. Nor would she answer the station’s specific questions about her spending, saying her attorney advised her against it because she is cooperating with law enforcement.

The first part of the newspaper’s investigation, published in March, revealed that she had spent nearly $17,000 in taxpayer funds on herself and her family using her county Visa card. Her purchases included airline tickets, a ski resort booking, a rental car and personal cell phone expenses.

She has either declined or not responded to all the AJC’s interview requests about her expenses since then. She did not respond to a voice mail left on her cell phone Monday.

Following the March stories, the FBI launched an investigation into the commission’s discretionary spending. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed thousands of documents in June related to purchasing card spending by county commissioners as well as nearly 300 county employees.

An investigation by the county’s Board of Ethics is also pending, after residents filed a flurry of complaints against Boyer and others. The board will now have to decide whether to go forward with the case, Chairman John Ernst said late Monday.

The AJC also has continued drilling into questionable office expenses, pressing Boyer for answers on more than $90,000 in payments she authorized to consultants. She has been unable to produce any reports, memos, correspondence or other evidence of the consultants’ work.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, interviewed last week about the AJC’s latest findings, would not speak about Boyer’s spending. He said he has had no power over it. Under DeKalb’s government structure, commissioners run their individual offices autonomously, with each commanding more than $260,000 a year in discretionary funds.

After learning of her resignation Monday, May praised Boyer. “Recent news stories notwithstanding, Elaine Boyer has faithfully served the constituents of District 1 and DeKalb County for over 20 years,” he said.

Tom Hill, a Republican who lives in Brookhaven and previously supported Boyer, was less forgiving. “Come on people, quit treating your constituents like we’re stupid,” said Hill, a retired finance professional. “Stuff she did like going on a ski trip, she knew she shouldn’t do this.”

Boyer ran up the questionable expenses as she and her husband, John, were having personal financial problems. In 2009, they lost a Stone Mountain strip mall they owned to foreclosure after defaulting on an $886,600 loan, court documents show. Her husband, a chiropractor, had an office there.

In the past three years, she has filed for bankruptcy twice and her husband has filed for bankruptcy five times, subsequently dropping cases each time in an apparent tactic to stall foreclosure of their home in Smoke Rise, near Stone Mountain.

Despite the moves, in April a bank foreclosed and the family was ordered to vacate by this week. The house appeared to be empty on Monday, and a neighbor said a moving truck backed into the driveway on Sunday.

Boyer told Channel 2 on Monday that she had been wanting to resign for some time. “This is the moment,” she said.

A party stalwart

Boyer had been the county commission’s sole Republican and its longest-serving member, first elected in 1992. She represented District 1, which includes Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Tucker and Smoke Rise.

She became prominent in Northside GOP political circles, helping with Clint Day’s campaigns for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor in the 1990s and Karen Handel’s recent bids for governor and U.S. Senate.

Boyer’s own campaigns stressed tax relief, and she drew support from social conservatives such as officers of Georgia Right to Life, Christian Coalition and Eagle Forum. From her seat at the dais in DeKalb County Commission meetings, her rhetoric delighted her constituency.

In 2011, Boyer questioned travel by then-CEO Burrell Ellis and five of her fellow commissioners. At the time, the county was trying to cut $33.6 million from its budget.

Boyer said travel needed to be one of the first things cut from every department budget. “We have a limited budget as commissioners,” she said, “and I prefer to spend mine for other stuff in my district that directly helps my constituents.”

That same year, when DeKalb approved a 26 percent tax hike, Boyer criticized Ellis: “We are all cutting our budgets, yet the county has refused to embrace layoffs or significant budget reductions.”

In 2012, she was critical of county spending, calling for 5 percent budget cuts in every department.

Meanwhile, for at least the past two years, Boyer was ringing up personal expenses on her DeKalb County purchasing card, a Visa that acts like a debit card, drawing down taxpayer funds. The AJC examined her purchases in 2012 and 2013, identifying $16,800 in personal expenses.

Boyer repaid the county for some of her purchases within days, weeks or months – essentially treating the money as bridge loans. But she failed to repay about $8,000 until after the AJC sought receipts documenting her spending.

That included more than $3,700 in cellphone charges, which she repaid as the AJC pressed for copies of her T-Mobile bills, which could detail how many phone lines she has, with a rundown of calls and texts.

She refused to obtain the bills or to explain her reasons.

Boyer said she lost receipts for more than 70 other transactions that the AJC questioned in spot checks of her Visa purchases in 2012 and 2013.

While Boyer criticized travel by other officials, in 2012 she spent $800 of taxpayer money on two flights to Phoenix, one for her and one for her daughter. She told the AJC she went there on behalf of DeKalb firefighters to look into problems with air packs that both Phoenix and DeKalb firefighters claimed were malfunctioning.

Boyer said she didn’t want to travel alone. But she didn’t reimburse the $400 for her daughter’s flight until the AJC requested the receipts.

Later that year, she returned to Phoenix for what she described as a vacation. She charged the county $513 for a rental car, but didn’t pay that back either until the AJC asked questions.

She denied using county funds to float her own expenses, attributing her pattern of personal charges to sloppy record keeping and turnover among staffers who help her keep up with her own spending.

She said she could not explain why she repeatedly pulled out her county P-card to pay for things that had nothing to do with DeKalb County business.

“I don’t have a reason,” Boyer told the AJC in March. “I’ve never had any intent of doing anything (wrong). I have been totally honest and trying to be transparent in returning the funds.”

Standing in the way

Boyer had also positioned herself as a crusader for cleaning up DeKalb government, which has struggled for years with corruption scandals.

Following last year’s indictment of Ellis on allegations that he coerced campaign donations from county contractors, she and May held a news conference to call for an appointed CEO.

But Boyer and Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton later stalled on a request by the county ethics board for more money to conduct investigations. They said they were concerned the board would have too much power if it could hire outside investigators, as a special grand jury investigating allegations of corruption had recommended.

“I want a game plan,” Boyer said.

Boyer at one point also proposed penalties for those who filed unsubstantiated ethics complaints.

This year, the board finally got the funds needed to sharpen its teeth, including a 600 percent increase in its funding, to $118,000. Much of the money is being used to hire investigators to check out ethics complaints.

When serious questions came up about Boyer’s own activities in office, she claimed ignorance of the rules. She said she didn’t think the county’s P-card policy, which forbids using the cards for personal purchases, applied to elected officials.

“It never dawned on me that what I was doing was wrong,” she said in a March interview with WSB.

But Boyer had signed an agreement to follow those rules, the AJC’s investigation found, acknowledging she could face civil action or criminal prosecution for improper use of her card.

Commissioners had also been told to keep their receipts, as a county auditor pointedly reminded Boyer in a 2011 audit for compliance with the policy.

County commissioners subsequently voted in favor of a new policy that explicitly applies to them, although some have said they always were covered.

The allegations also prompted interim May to overhaul the county’s P-card policy, and commissioners have hired an accounting firm, O.H. Plunkett & Co., to audit their expenses for the past 10 years. Auditors are seeking proof that all spending was for county business. That audit is expected to be completed by early October.

Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, said that Boyer’s resignation should remove a cloud from the office. “It was difficult to see how Commissioner Boyer could have continued to be effective in office,” he said.

“It’s a sad end to a long career in public office, but I think she did the right thing,” said Commissioner Jeff Rader, a Democrat. “This now gives the voters in District 1 the opportunity to choose new representation and help to restore confidence in DeKalb County government.”