DeKalb officials dole out more than $500,000 in questionable spending

DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton paid a political consultant $46,000 to write press releases, talking points and proclamations, among other things. It’s one of hundreds of examples of questionable spending outlined in the DeKalb corruption report released this week. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton paid a political consultant $46,000 to write press releases, talking points and proclamations, among other things. It’s one of hundreds of examples of questionable spending outlined in the DeKalb corruption report released this week. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Spending under scrutiny

An investigation report released this week details more than $500,000 in questionable spending by DeKalb County officials. Among the leaders in such spending are CEO Lee May and members of the Board of Commissioners.

Official Amount

CEO Lee May $25,463

Commissioner Kathie Gannon $49,824

Commissioner Larry Johnson $66,036

Commissioner Jeff Rader $58,441

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton $167,168

Commissioner Stan Watson $119,102

Note: Amounts for Stan Watson include $103,197 incurred by Watson’s predecessor, Connie Stokes. No questionable expenses were identified for Nancy Jestor, District 1, and Mereda Davis Johnson, District 5, both of whom were recently elected.

Source: AJC analysis of spending detailed in the investigation report.

Since 2008, DeKalb County officials have spent more than $537,000 on questionable expenses, using public money to buy everything from food and flowers to pricey consultants to craft their public image, an AJC analysis of the DeKalb corruption report shows.

In payments as small as $2.99 for boiled peanuts and as large as $90,763 for printing and mailing, county commissioners and other officials doled out taxpayer money for a host of products and services that special investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde say should be scrutinized further to determine if any legitimate public purpose was involved.

The newspaper's analysis of expenses detailed in this week's corruption investigation report underscores just how much discretion DeKalb officials have over how they spend taxpayer dollars and how little scrutiny that spending usually receives.

Some DeKalb residents told the AJC they want a full accounting of the spending.

“It’s just a mindset,” said South DeKalb resident Charles Peagler. “They feel that whatever they do they’re justified in doing because there was nobody monitoring them. There was no oversight.”

DeKalb officials have decried the report and defended their spending, saying their expenses were appropriate parts of their government jobs. Many of those expenses were made with government charge cards, most of which were suspended by Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May in June.

“There was so much focus on purchasing cards. There was no effort to report the truth,” said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

Investigators identified $167,168 in questionable expenses for Sutton, the most of any commissioner.

“I hope we are done with this, that we can move on with the work of the county, do the best we can possibly do for our constituents and help rebuild the public trust,” Sutton said.

50,000 purchases; 311 questioned

Bowers and Hyde examined more than 50,000 purchases made over many years and said they found thousands of questionable charges. They listed 311 of those charges in the investigation report released Wednesday.

The newspaper analyzed the expenses detailed in the report, broke them down by type of spending and totaled them for each commissioner and department. The AJC was unable to verify the accuracy of all the expenses identified in the report, but did find $103,197 that was erroneously attributed to Commissioner Stan Watson.

Among the AJC’s findings:

  • The report questions $537,239 worth of spending dating back to 2008, most of it by county commissioners.
  • Most of the individual expenditures were less than $500. But there were dozens of expenditures worth more than $1,000. The largest: $90,763 that the investigators said was spent by Watson's office at AADCO Printing & Mailing in 2008 and 2009. Watson wasn't elected until 2010; an audit last fall also noted the same spending from 2008 and 2009, when Commissioner Connie Stokes was in office.
  • The report cited $25,463 in questionable expenditures by May. But several commissioners spent much more on questionable activities, according to the report. Among them: Sutton, $167,168; Larry Johnson, $66,036; Rader, $58,441; and Kathie Gannon, $49,824.

The analysis found the expenditures ranged from $3,730 for flowers to $256,791 for consulting services. Other significant types of spending included charitable contributions, $92,405; food, $35,804; and supplies, $115,887.

Donations to charities

One of the biggest categories of questionable expenses identified by the investigators — more than $92,000 — was donations to charities, which the report said violated the Georgia Constitution’s ban on gratuities.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said his $44,241 in donations to nonprofit organizations included support for senior citizens, increased public safety and provided scholarships for children to attend Shakespeare performances.

“The substance of what we spent money on, at least in my office, I would certainly defend all day long. They delivered value for money and frankly are probably more efficient service delivery entities than is the county itself,” Rader said. “I’m comfortable that I dind’t receive any personal benefit from any of them.”

But Jim Grubiak, general counsel for Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the organization for county governments, said that kind of giving is likely prohibited in Georgia.

“You can’t on your own decide which charities use county or city dollars, no matter how good it is or helpful they are to the community as a whole,” he said.

Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, said the $20,000 Rader donated to his organization was used to support DeKalb parks, including about $5,100 for Springbrook Park. He said contributions like Rader’s are matched by private contributions and help pay for projects that might otherwise not receive adequate funding.

“People talk about how we need to do more with less in government,” Halicki said. “This is a good example of stretching taxpayer dollars.”

Politicking with public money

Others, however, noted how using taxpayers’ money for charitable contributions with taxpayers’ money can buy political support. State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, cited Commissioner Larry Johnson’s $11,500 in contributions to the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center, which earned him a plaque at the facility that identifies him as a “platinum” donor.

Johnson has said it was appropriate for him to support the center as it endured budget cuts, and last year the DeKalb County Board of Ethics unanimously dismissed a complaint sparked by the donation. But Taylor sees such contributions as a way to curry political favor.

“The most disturbing thing is just the use of taxpayer dollars to, frankly, campaign,” he said.

Sutton spent $1,100 on a portrait of President Barack Obama that she won at an Oct. 20, 2013, charity auction benefiting Africa’s Children’s Fund, which serves children here as well as in Africa and the Caribbean. The investigators listed a $1,000 expense from Sutton for the charity on that date.

And Gannon got her name inscribed on a brick at the Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library after she gave $100 to the DeKalb Library Foundation on May 25, 2012.

Some of the biggest expenses outlined in the investigation report were for consultants who helped burnish the images of elected officials.

For example, from 2011 to 2014 Sutton paid $46,000 to the Influence Factory, a political consulting firm. Last year the AJC reported that the company's Howard Franklin wrote proclamations, talking points and news releases for Sutton. He also ghost-wrote an opinion piece and worked occasionally on her campaign, though Franklin insisted he never billed Sutton for that work.

In their report, Bowers and Hyde acknowledge much of the spending they cited may be legitimate. They said more analysis is needed to know for sure.

Peagler, the DeKalb resident, said commissioners should explain all of the expenditures outlined in the investigation report.

“If you don’t have anything to hide, then let’s come clean and say, ‘This is what I did and this is why I did it,’” he said. “If I have a report that says what you did and there’s no rebuttal to this report, how am I supposed to believe you are innocent?”

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