DeKalb ethics panel targets two elected officials

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics broadened its investigations of county commissioners’ alleged spending abuses Tuesday, launching inquiries of two more elected officials.

The Ethics Board voted to look into complaints that Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton and Larry Johnson have put personal expenses on their taxpayer-backed Visa cards.

Another commissioner, Elaine Boyer, already faces a ethics similar investigation into her use of a county-issued purchasing card, or P-card.

If the board concludes that the commissioners violated ethics rules, it could levy punishments ranging from reprimands to removals from office.

DeKalb residents filed complaints against the commissioners following reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about their spending for airline tickets, a ski resort booking and personal phone bills, with purchases from Barnes & Noble, the Apple online store and Amazon.

The Board of Ethics plans to meet in July for a work session that would help its members decide when P-card spending wasn’t appropriate, said board Chairman John Ernst.

“We’ll be setting guidelines on how to understand how to proceed in these cases. There were so many complaints of basically the same nature, and we needed to have a real good understanding of this issue,” Ernst said.

The three commissioners under investigation have denied wrongdoing.

Sutton said there’s no dispute that she spent about $75,000 on her P-card since 2011, but she said her expenses were appropriate.

“That is a reasonable amount if you divide it up over a three-year period for a constituency of nearly 150,000 people,” Sutton told Channel 2 Action News.

Johnson said he believed his most controversial P-card spending was $12,000 worth of donations to help fund programs at a county performing arts center. His total charge card expenses exceeded $57,000 since 2011.

“It was all for public purpose in terms of just helping out the arts in our community,” Johnson told Channel 2.

In other business Tuesday, the Board of Ethics decided to wait until former CEO Burrell Ellis' trial concludes before considering his case. Ellis faces ethics complaints and criminal charges based on allegations that he pressured county vendors for campaign contributions. He faces trial in September.

The board also voted to seek more information before acting on complaints against former Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton and former county secretary Nina Hall.

Walton, a key witness in the case against Ellis, allegedly accepted gifts from county vendors and funnelled cash to Hall, who served on several selection committees for county projects, according to the ethics complaints against them.