DeKalb’s ethics oversight effort set back by court ruling

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton during DeKalb County Commission meeting at DeKalb County Government Administration Building on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton during DeKalb County Commission meeting at DeKalb County Government Administration Building on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

After years of trying to bring stronger ethical oversight to DeKalb’s scandal-tarnished government, a judge issued a ruling Friday that likely cripples the county’s independent Board of Ethics.

Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson concluded that members of the DeKalb Board of Ethics should have been appointed by elected government officials, not by outside groups like the DeKalb Bar Association and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.

Her ruling stalls the ethics effort that arose from years of allegations about government corruption. Some elected officials ended up in prison, including former Commissioner Elaine Boyer and CEO Burrell Ellis, whose conviction was later overturned because he didn't receive a fair trial.

Now, the DeKalb Board of Ethics may not be able to continue handling allegations of misbehavior because four of its seven members were appointed by private organizations.

The decision is a victory for former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who sued the board as she was facing allegations that she misspent public money while in office. Sutton has said all her spending was for legitimate government purposes.

Even though 92 percent of voters approved the appointment process during a referendum in November 2015, Sutton said the board needs to be accountable to publicly elected representatives.

"This shows that when reasonable people stand up for what's right, you win sometimes," said Sutton, who lost a re-election bid for her Stone Mountain-area district last year.

The DeKalb Board of Ethics will consider an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, said the board’s attorney, Darren Summerville.

“It is difficult to understand how the voters directly approving a specific appointment process can be deemed unconstitutional based upon a lack of public input and participation,” Summerville said. “We are perhaps obviously disappointed.”

Voters supported restructuring the board to make it more independent from the government it monitors for conflicts of interest, improper spending of public money and other infractions that fall short of criminal prosecution.

Previously, the board was appointed by DeKalb’s commissioners and CEO. The changes made four of the board’s members picked by non-governmental groups, two by judges and one by the county’s state legislative delegation.

The board has the power to levy $1,000 fines, issue public reprimands and refer cases for potential misdemeanor prosecution by the county solicitor.

Jackson's decision was based on a 1979 Georgia Supreme Court case, Rogers v. Medical Association of Georgia, which found it unconstitutional for legislators to delegate their appointment power to private organizations.

“To pass constitutional muster, it would seem that there should be an accountable governmental entity that would provide final approval to those seated to serve on the board,” Jackson wrote.

Sutton’s attorney, Dwight Thomas, said the judge’s ruling upholds the rule of law by reining in the quasi-judicial Board of Ethics.

“It’s being run by unelected, unaccountable people. Government can’t be run by private citizens,” Thomas said. “It’s about the law. No one’s above it; no one’s beneath it.”

The future of the DeKalb Board of Ethics is now uncertain.

The Georgia General Assembly failed to pass a bill this year that would have made appointments to the Board of Ethics subject to approval by DeKalb's state senators and representatives. Board members opposed amendments to the legislation that they say would have rendered the board powerless to police unethical behavior.

While the board probably can no longer consider ethics complaints, launch investigations or issue advice, DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman can still continue doing the part of her job that involves training the county’s 6,000-plus government employees.