DeKalb Commissioner Sutton paid $34K to boyfriend

Elaine Boyer, now facing federal prison for fraud, wasn’t the only DeKalb elected official who tapped taxpayer money for questionable expenses.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of expense accounts identified another relationship between a commissioner and a vendor that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

It involves Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

During her first two years in office, Sutton authorized more than $34,000 in county checks to her then-boyfriend, most of it for his undocumented advice on running her office, the AJC found.

Sutton’s romantic involvement with Warren Mosby, who was her campaign manager, had long been rumored. She raised eyebrows as she took office in January 2009 and cut a series of checks to two companies he operates, HSI Systems & Consultants and RighThink Associates.

The relationship finally became public record this past February, after the pair had an altercation at Mosby's home and the commissioner told a DeKalb County police officer that "she and Mr. Mosby have been in (a) relationship for the last seven years," according to an incident report.

Rewind five years, and Sutton ordered a $10,000 check for Mosby's HSI just weeks after taking office. According to an invoice, it was for "transition" advice, advising her on her office operations plan, and "meeting support."

Sutton, a Democrat who represents about 140,000 people in Stone Mountain, Clarkston and Pine Lake, declined the AJC’s interview requests for this story. Instead, she wrote a letter to a reporter, but it did not address her relationship with Mosby.

“HSI and RighThink,” Sutton’s letter said, “are well-known consulting companies that were used in developing literature, outreach and programming in a variety of programs to serve the residents of District 4. Those companies contract with several elected officials on the state and local level and did not work out of this office.”

The checks to Mosby aren’t Sutton’s only questionable spending. She also approved tens of thousands of dollars for aides who bolstered her public image but whose benefit to taxpayers is unclear, the AJC found.

And earlier this year, a joint review of spending by the AJC and WSB Channel 2 Action News found that Sutton and her top aide put $75,000 on their Visa purchasing cards since 2011 – by far the most out of all seven commission offices – without saving receipts for more than half of what they spent.

Federal investigators are still probing commissioners’ discretionary spending, an investigation triggered by the AJC’s expose of Boyer’s improper spending in March.

In a news conference Tuesday, after Boyer appeared before a federal magistrate, U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said the investigation is ongoing and includes other commissioners.

She would not say which ones.

Boyer said Tuesday she will plead guilty to mail fraud conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with schemes that cost DeKalb taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

She had an evangelist submit false invoices for more than $83,000 then deposit most of the money into her personal account. Boyer is also accused of using her county purchasing card to pay for more than $15,000 in personal expenses.

Prosecutors said they will seek a prison sentence.

A consultant and a beau

Sutton’s payments to Mosby may be legal. They could be ethical violations, though, which could pose problems for Sutton in a county where the Board of Ethics has power to remove elected officials from office.

Former ethics board chairman Isaac Blythers reviewed the AJC’s findings about the payments and said Sutton may have violated rules by creating an appearance that the money benefited her.

“That’s the perception,” he said. “If I’m an elected official, and I’m in a relationship with them, then it’s less than an arm’s length transaction.”

Their romantic entanglement figures into a pending ethics complaint against Sutton, filed by DeKalb activists Viola Davis and Joel Edwards. It charges her with conflict of interest. Under the code, using one’s position “to secure unwarranted privileges” for one’s self or others is prohibited.

The complaint also accuses her of violating her oath of office, violating the public trust and possible criminal activity for the P-card purchases.

Sutton sidestepped the boyfriend issue again Wednesday in a phone interview with WSB.

“It does not matter,” Sutton said. “Mr. Mosby is not a member of my family.”

Mosby hung up on an AJC reporter wanting to talk to him about the payments from Sutton, then didn’t return subsequent voice mails.

However, Mosby told another AJC reporter — who at the time was reporting on an ethics complaint Mosby filed against another DeKalb commissioner — that he is not currently in a personal relationship with Sutton. He would not answer questions about their past and said he has never lived with her.

“I’m not really going to give credence to those discussions” about personal relationships, Mosby said.

The $10,000 check Mosby got just after Sutton took office wasn’t the first he got for District 4 services. Records show HSI received $4,000 for office supplies the previous December, when she was transitioning in.

Then in December 2009, RighThink received $4,500 for further advice about how to be a commissioner and for financial analysis and budget consultation.

A $6,275 check to RighThink followed in March 2010 for budget and policy consultation, other invoices show. The company received another $600 check in December 2010.

Sutton’s office could produce no reports, memos, correspondence, or other work product from HSI or RighThink documenting any consulting or advising they provided.

It found only eight pages of material from RighThink, all involving a 2010 community meeting about a serial rapist. The material included emails, an invoice for 30,000 robocalls, two press releases and a meeting agenda.

Her next campaign

When Sutton ran for reelection in 2012, she spent tens of thousands of DeKalb County’s dollars paying people who bolstered her public image.

In about August 2011, she began paying Howard Franklin, of Influence Factory, for consulting and media services. Prior to her July 31, 2012 election, she had paid him $36,000.

Franklin first told the AJC that his work involved only county business. “I don’t have a single shred or iota of involvement with the campaign,” said Franklin, who now works as a policy adviser for Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves.

But Franklin later acknowledged assisting, after the AJC asked about a January 2012 email where he told Sutton’s chief of staff he was “just finishing her disclosure.” The email was sent about an hour and 15 minutes before one of Sutton’s campaign finance reports was electronically filed with the state.

On another occasion, emails show, Sutton’s chief of staff instructed Franklin to fill out a form for the weekly Champion Newspaper’s election guide. “I’m running for reelection to keep DeKalb moving in the right direction,” he wrote for her. “ … I need your vote on July 31!”

Franklin said he never billed her for any of that work.

“If you can find two things, or three things, that I’ve volunteered to help her do, over three years,” he said, “I promise you I could find you 100 things per year that were county related, specific to her office, that I was actually getting paid to do.”

Other emails show him writing proclamations, talking points and press releases and ghost writing an op-ed piece, among other things.

In June, the month before the election, Franklin also forwarded to Sutton’s chief of staff an email that offered campaign fund-raising tips.

Franklin said it was likely a blast email newsletter, and he forwarded it along because “I’m in the habit of forwarding interesting things to people that I like.”

The email was originally sent by Stacey Chavis, whom Sutton had hired in late December 2011 as an office aide for $3,833 a month but whose website describes her a professional political strategist.

Chavis remained on Sutton’s staff until October 2012, two months after Sutton’s reelection.

Chavis did not respond to phone or email messages.

Sutton told the AJC in her letter that Chavis’ “duties included managing several of our outreach campaigns, including fund-raising, for several initiatives but primarily ovarian cancer awareness.”

Crossing the line?

State law forbids politicians’ using their public office budgets to campaign. It’s a misdemeanor if done intentionally, but it more typically leads to fines by the state ethics board.

However, there’s nothing to stop elected officials from promoting their work under the auspices of educating the public, so long as they don’t explicitly seek votes.

Campaign law experts said Sutton so barely crossed that line that they doubted any ethics complaint would stick. Only Franklin’s completing of the election guide form, done at the direction of Sutton’s chief of staff, appears to be a clear-cut infraction, experts said.

“Incidental things like that are usually not the kinds of things the campaign finance commission is going to give a lot of attention to,” said attorney Doug Chalmers of The Political Law Group.

Steve Anthony, a professor at Georgia State University who follows DeKalb County government, said Sutton may likewise not have violated any laws by paying her boyfriend, but it’s sure to rouse suspicions.

“It should raise red flags with the voters,” he said, “because why the hell are you paying your boyfriend for advice when you could get it for free?”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton

A Democrat, first elected to the DeKalb Commission in 2008 and reelected in 2012 for a four-year term.

Represents District 4, the seat previously held by suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.

Chair of the Commission’s Public Safety and General Government Committee.

The 55-year-old, a resident of Stone Mountain, was a teacher before taking office. A widow, she is the mother of three.

Before being elected to the Commission, she ran in 2004 and 2006 for State House District 87.