When Gov. Nathan Deal suspended DeKalb County’s top law enforcement official this week, it was rare punishment for a sheriff in Georgia accused of wrongdoing.
Only three times since 2004 has a sheriff been temporarily removed from his post. Forcing a sheriff from office permanently is more difficult, usually requiring a clearly contemptible act that leads to a felony conviction.
DeKalb County Sheriff Jeff Mann’s 40-day suspension came after an investigation by two sheriffs and Attorney General Chris Carr into allegations that he exposed himself in Piedmont Park, then ran from a police officer. He has pleaded not guilty to municipal charges of indecency and obstruction.
Even if he’s convicted, Mann appears likely to return to office when his suspension expires next month.
Just seven months ago, the long-time law enforcement officer was elected to his first full four-year term, becoming the county’s 49th sheriff by garnering 80 percent of the vote.
That distinction of being an elected official means the county or state’s power to oust him is limited, and a recall election couldn’t be held unless more than 30 percent of DeKalb’s registered voters — 125,000 people — sign a petition.
Because of the nature of the job, sheriffs are often the subjects of complaints, said Terry Norris, executive director for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Many of those complaints are unfounded, he said. But some complaints are referred on to the governor’s office, especially when a sheriff faces criminal charges.
While referral to the governor’s office is no guarantee that action will be taken, the sheriff in question often finds himself out of a job anyway — imprisoned if convicted of felonies, or on the losing end of the next election, said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, second vice president for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Some resign voluntarily.
“There are many laws in place that make it difficult to remove any elected official,” Sills said. “But I’d hate to have to run for re-election when my opponent says, ‘This man was suspended by the governor after his colleagues recommended it.’”
Waiting for the next election isn’t acceptable to those who see Mann as an embarrassment and say he’s lost his credibility, said Ted Golden, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency agent who ran against Mann in the Democratic primary last year.
“What does that say about us as a county when we elect public officials to uphold the law, and they’re out there creeping in the night and doing something reprehensible?” Golden said. “A 40-day suspension isn’t sufficient.”
When Mann goes on trial in Atlanta Municipal Court on July 7, he’ll face potential fines of $1,453 for indecency and $753 for disorderly conduct/obstruction, according to the city’s offense schedule posted online. But a guilty verdict in itself doesn’t disqualify him for holding office because the charges are not felonies or misdemeanor crimes of moral turpitude, such as theft or fraud.
Besides the court case, the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council will investigate Mann and could suspend or revoke his officer certification. A revocation of Mann’s license would result in his removal from office.
It’s unclear whether the allegations against Mann are serious enough to justify potential revocation of his license.
“‘Serious’ is a subjective term. Council weighs the offense along with the title and experience of the offender as part of their decision making,” said Ken Vance, the council’s executive director. “The governor’s suspension will certainly play into the council’s decision.”
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has referred 15 cases to the governor’s office since 2004.
Three of those cases resulted in suspensions: Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett, who in 2004 allegedly invested and lost $2 million of the proceeds from tax auctions; Miller County Sheriff Shane Rathel, who was charged in 2016 with selling stolen guns and other crimes; and Mann this year.
Both Barrett and Rathel soon found themselves out of office. Barrett didn’t run for re-election. Rathel pleaded guilty and was sentenced this month to five years imprisonment.
Most other accused sheriffs didn’t retain their elected positions even though they were never suspended. Some resigned or were convicted; others died while under investigation or didn’t win re-election. Three sheriffs were exonerated or didn’t face criminal charges.
The governor decides how to resolve each case presented by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association based on feedback from local officials and organizations, said Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan.
Mann’s attorney, Noah Pines, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
“I was elected by the voters of DeKalb County and I intend to continue to serve the people of this county,” Mann said in his only statement on the case May 12, which was read by Pines during a press conference. “I pledge to you that my only goal is to continue to do the work that you elected me to do.”
In other recent cases, Deal decided against calling for investigations of Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, despite his indictment in 2012 for racketeering and his no contest plea last year to a misdemeanor charge of reckless conduct in the accidental shooting of a woman.
A jury acquitted Hill in the first case. Deal said in 2013 that state law about suspensions only applies to those indicted while holding elected office, and Hill was out of office from 2009 to 2012 before being re-elected. Hill’s certification was suspended in March for two years as a result of the shooting, but he’s still able to carry out his duties as sheriff because his certification wasn’t revoked.
Ultimately, discipline of sheriffs should be left to the voters, said Mike Puglise, an attorney who represented Hill in the shooting case.
“If the people of DeKalb want to re-elect Mann and keep him as sheriff, the DeKalb citizens should have that voice — not Gov. Deal,” Puglise said. “I don’t like the idea of a certain party, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, controlling the electoral process.”
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