DeKalb commissioners spend public money on outside lawyers

Three DeKalb County commissioners have spent taxpayer money on hiring outside attorneys to sue their own county, handle the media and write up allegations against their colleagues.

More than $35,000 in payments to lawyers since late 2012 came from the commissioners’ office budgets, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Georgia News Lab through requests under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Each commissioner has discretion over how he uses the office budget, as long as the public money is spent for legitimate government purposes. The commissioners involved say the expenses were justified. But they’ve accused each other of misusing funds for political and personal purposes, which would be in violation of state laws and ethical rules.

The lawyers were hired to sort out questions about a 2012 golf outing that raised money for Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton’s re-election campaign and to file suit in an attempt to overturn a county zoning decision.

The three commissioners — Kathie Gannon, Jeff Rader and Sutton — didn’t provide full details on the work produced by their lawyers, citing attorney-client privilege and ongoing investigations.

Gannon and Rader split the $5,000 cost charged by Stefan Turkheimer to prepare a report on allegations that several county employees attended Sutton’s golf event during their county work hours, a mistake that the commission’s former chief of staff, Morris Williams, accepted blame for in an interview with Channel 2 Action News.

The commissioners delivered the report to DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, but they didn’t make it available in response to the open records request because the matter is under investigation, Rader said. James told a Board of Ethics investigator on March 3 he was conducting an inquiry into the matter, according to the investigator’s report. Neither Williams nor Sutton has been charged with a crime, and a spokesman for James said Wednesday that the matter is being reviewed.

“We had knowledge of behavior on the part of a staff person who was absolutely behaving in an illegal way, which is why we sent it to the district attorney,” Gannon said. “That is a protection for our constituents and the dollars they give us.”

Sutton disagrees, saying she was the target of a politically motivated “witch hunt” by her rivals who wanted to hurt her chances of getting elected.

“I think this is criminal. They’re the ones who need to be investigated,” Sutton said, who took office in 2008. “They’ve been throwing mud ever since I’ve been on that board, and I’m not going to play in the mud with them. All this malice they’ve shown to other commissioners has been destructive to the entire county.”

After Channel 2 asked questions about Sutton’s golfing event, she hired an attorney, Quinton Washington, in part to deal with the news story.

Sutton used her office budget to pay Washington a total of $10,905, and one of his billing statements indicates some of his time was spent in conversations with the TV station about the story. She said Washington’s services included advice to ensure appropriations were for county services and to assist her in speaking about government issues.

Gannon said she believes spending government money to protect a commissioner’s reputation isn’t a legitimate use of funds.

The use of the commissioners’ office budget to hire legal assistance is “a gray area of gray areas,” said John Ernst, the chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics.

“It’s a balancing act between the proper role of county commissioners being watchdogs, and the potential for county money to be used for political hit pieces,” said Ernst, who is also an attorney.

In a separate expenditure, Gannon and Rader split the $18,664 bill for the legal services of Scott Bennett, who represented them when they appealed a zoning decision by suing DeKalb County.

The commissioners disagreed with a decision by the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals to allow a permit for a controversial subdivision called Clifton Ridge in the Druid Hills neighborhood. They believed the board’s ruling was incorrect, and they hired the outside lawyer because the DeKalb law department, which also represents the zoning board and administration, had a conflict of interest.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure the faithful execution of county law,” Rader said. “The point was that we needed outside counsel because our position was at odds with the administration, another client of the county attorney.”

A DeKalb superior court judge dismissed their claim, ruling that the commissioners didn’t have legal standing to sue. Other lawsuits by the Druid Hills Civic Association opposing the development are still pending.

Two of the lawyers, Turkheimer and Washington, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege. Bennett didn’t return a phone message.

But Steve Apolinsky, an attorney who defended Gannon in her ethics case, said there are times when elected officials need legal advice as they pursue their responsibilities to constituents.

“Sometimes you need to ask a question or have an issue handled by somebody outside of the county,” said Apolinsky, who wasn’t paid with county funds. “Sometimes having lawyers involved helps the process.”

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