DeKalb watchdog bites taxpayers

The white girl outdid them all.

In recent years it has become accepted fact that DeKalb County is a mess. And within that narrative is a subplot saying much of the mess is due to corruption among some black politicians and government officials.

Now, it turns out that Commissioner Elaine Boyer, the board’s sole Republican, a white woman from North DeKalb and a good-government watchdog, was stealing money faster than a busy smash-and-grab crew.

Boyer, in office for two decades and seemingly an effective legislator, admitted last week to illegally funneling almost $80,000 to an evangelist posing as a consultant, who then kicked back some $60,000 to her. The money came from a $267,000-a-year office fund each commissioner controls. The kickbacks occurred at a time when Boyer’s family was experiencing financial difficulties. But, then again, those committing larceny usually have explanations.

The list of black pols or officials tinged with or splattered by charges of corruption in DeKalb has been growing.

Commissioner Stan Watson’s name came up in a corruption trial in South Carolina this year, when a construction exec testified two businessmen asked him to bribe the DeKalb pol to get some sewer work. The judge later tossed the allegations involving Watson, and he said he was vindicated.

Former School Superintendent Crawford Lewis was charged with racketeering and theft in an investigation that shook the school district to its foundation. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice charges.

Suspended county CEO Burrell Ellis is accused of shaking down contractors for campaign donations. He goes to trial Sept. 8.

Then there’s Vernon Jones, the former CEO who was so disliked in parts of the county that he helped spur the incorporation of Dunwoody.

Jones has been investigated before, and last year a special purpose grand jury looking into corruption in the county recommended that he and several others be investigated for their possible roles in manipulating contracts, theft and obstruction.

But Jones was not charged with any wrongdoing and he was free to run again for public office this year (sheriff this time), allowing him to once again lose badly.

Jones has been hard to find in recent years, and harder to get to speak. But somewhere in DeKalb last week he was no doubt having a good laugh.

The last time I talked with him he pointed to corruption — big time corruption — in Gwinnett County, where whites have a monopoly on power. But that wasn’t getting the same kind of buzz that DeKalb corruption got. Why was that? he asked.

Last month, former Gwinnett Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who was accused of getting $1 million in bribes in connection with a land deal, got probation and a fine after pleading “no contest” to a bribery charge.

Race “does drive a lot of politics in DeKalb,” former AJC editorial writer and now communications smoother Jeff Dickerson told me. “There’s a perception that African-Americans don’t know how to run things.”

Dickerson, who has helped Ellis’ defense team, said evidence may show that the suspended CEO was a heavy-handed campaigner. He is accused of shaking down contractors for campaign donations.

“None of that was pilfering from the public trough,” Dickerson said. “Elaine Boyer stole taxpayer money. She did it in a very methodical and intentional way.”

Former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said the Boyer case “is another example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“It’s not about race, it’s about opportunity,” said Morgan. “I think Elaine is the start of the Humpty Dumpty wall. I don’t think she’s alone.”

My colleague Johnny Edwards, whose investigation into commissioner spending put a spotlight on Boyer, this week wrote that Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who is black, paid some $34,000 in county funds to her then-boyfriend’s company as a consultant. Little of what he did in return for those payments is documented.

Kevin Levitas, a former legislator who has headed an effort to create the city of Lakeside in north-central DeKalb, said the question has never been black and white. The Boyer case, he said, is one more example of corruption and will drive people off the fence to support incorporating more cities.

“The question is not is it Elaine Boyer or Burrell Ellis, the question is, ‘What’s wrong with DeKalb and how can we fix it?’” Levitas said. “The problem is DeKalb has gotten too big and bloated and not accountable.”

Michael Thurmond, a former legislator and elected state labor commissioner, is a longtime DeKalb resident who was hired to help pull the county’s schools out of the ditch. He stressed he was speaking as a former pol, not an educator. OK, agreed.

“Public corruption is an equal-opportunity vice,” he said. “We reinforce our beliefs, no matter what the facts are, to see what we believe, to reinforce our pre-existing perceptions.

“The fact that Elaine Boyer may be pleading guilty may be filtered out by beliefs, biases and prejudices,” he said. Then he added, “As an African-American who has spent 30 years in politics, Elaine Boyer is not representative of all white Republican female elected officials.”

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