Voters approved a reorganization of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics during a Nov. 3 referendum. The new board will be appointed by community groups instead of by elected officials, and it will gain the ability to levy $1,000 fines. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
Photo: MARK NIESSE
Photo: MARK NIESSE

DeKalb ethics effort challenged in court

Just weeks after an overwhelming majority of voters in scandal-plagued DeKalb County supported a referendum to strengthen ethics enforcement, Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton is challenging whether the local ethics board has the authority to investigate her.

Sutton filed a lawsuit contending that the DeKalb Board of Ethics is unconstitutional, leading a judge to put on hold the case against her. Other ethics complaints also might not move forward until the litigation is resolved.

Sutton’s attorney, Dwight Thomas, said he doubts whether ethics boards — in DeKalb and across the state — should be allowed to sit in judgment of officials’ behavior.

“Are you giving them judicial powers or quasi-judicial powers?” Thomas asked. “That cannot be done under the Georgia Constitution.”

About 92 percent of voters approved changes to the DeKalb Board of Ethics in a Nov. 3 election. The county commission and CEO will no longer appoint the board’s members, who will soon be named by various community organizations. The board lost its power to suspend or remove officials from office, but it gained the ability to issue $1,000 fines.

In the days after the referendum, Thomas filed suit, and Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson issued an order preventing the DeKalb Board of Ethics from holding hearings in Sutton’s case. The lawsuit argues that any investigation of Sutton would have to be handled by the new board, and that even then, ethics boards deny individuals’ due process rights.

The board had previously scheduled a final hearing Nov. 12 to consider 10 allegations against Sutton. Ethics complaints allege Sutton improperly spent $1,100 in government money on a portrait of President Barack Obama at a charity auction, approved using county employees at a political fundraising event while on county time, and spent county funds on her personal attorney.

Sutton said all of her spending was appropriate and related to legitimate government purposes.

“I think there needs to be a lot of work with the way that we have ethics boards in this county … so that the charges will be legitimate and appropriate, and not used for political purposes,” Sutton said.

One of the DeKalb residents who filed an ethics complaint against Sutton, Viola Davis, said the lawsuit exposes problems with ethics boards. Davis said the FBI or DeKalb District Attorney Robert James should pursue criminal charges.

“This case shows the weaknesses of the Board of Ethics,” said Davis, who ran against Sutton in 2008. “It can still be manipulated to where it won’t hold these elected officials accountable.”

Rep. Scott Holcomb, who sponsored the ethics overhaul in House Bill 597, said the lawsuit is a distraction that prevents a renewed Board of Ethics from working to clean up DeKalb.

“It’s very clear to just about everybody in DeKalb that there needs to be accountability by Commissioner Sutton,” said Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “I’ve viewed a lot of these arguments as red herrings over whether or not she should have conducted herself differently.”

Johnson stopped the DeKalb Board of Ethics from hearing Sutton’s case Nov. 9. The board’s attorney will file a response next month.

The newly appointed board should be selected by Thursday, according to HB597. Then its members will appoint a full-time ethics officer responsible for training government employees about appropriate conduct, calling attention to ethics violations, accepting complaints and monitoring an ethics hotline.

The outgoing chairwoman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, Clara Black DeLay, said she lacks confidence in the incoming board, saying it will be used as a political tool. The new board’s seven members will be chosen by community groups, such as the DeKalb Bar Association, DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb and others.

“I think it’s going to be a circus,” she said. “People are jockeying for position and being put into place to further agendas, and not to do ethical things. I think it’s going to collapse under its own weight.”

The DeKalb Board of Ethics never used its power to suspend or remove officials, but it did take action against two commissioners this year.

The board reprimanded Commissioner Stan Watson in August for a conflict of interest when he voted twice to give his employer a county contract. The board also reprimanded former Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who is serving a federal prison sentence for using her county charge card for personal gain.

Rick Thompson, the former head of the Georgia Ethics Commission, said local ethics boards often struggle.

“It’s always a great idea to have somebody oversee these kind of things, a place to give finality or answers,” he said. “It seems like an added layer of bureaucracy that initially sounds good, but just the application of it, I’ve never heard of it really going well.”

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