DeKalb Ethics Board fines former county employee for charge card abuse

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics has fined a former assistant to Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, finding that the employee misused her government charge card for personal gain.

Judy Brownlee, who was Sutton’s chief of staff until leaving the job earlier this year, bought $150 in Office Depot gift cards for herself, failed to keep required receipts for her expenses and participated in a political campaign event during her work hours, according to the board’s unanimous conclusions.

The Board of Ethics, after hearing evidence in a 1½-hour hearing Wednesday, voted to levy a $1,000 fine and issue a public reprimand against Brownlee.

Brownlee didn’t attend the hearing, and she declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday.

Brownlee acknowledged that she purchased the $150 in gift cards to compensate herself for official business mileage and gas expenses, said Vic Hartman, the board’s investigator. But legitimate travel expenses should have been charged by submitting her mileage and gas receipts, a process she followed on several other occasions, he said.

“The most disturbing part is when she said she was reimbursing herself,” said board member Robert Tatum.

Brownlee failed to keep receipts for 32 percent of her $25,000 in total charge card purchases over several years, according to a 2014 audit. She also went to a political fundraiser for Sutton on June 29, 2012, while still claiming she worked a full eight-hour day, Hartman said.

"She did not uphold any of the responsibilities put in place to ensure accountability and transparency for the citizens of DeKalb County," said DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman.

The Board of Ethics gained the ability to levy fines when voters overwhelmingly approved its overhaul in a November referendum. Brownlee's case was the first time the board used that power.

DeKalb commissioners and their employees no longer use government charge cards since Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May restricted them last year.