Ethics watchdog hired to put DeKalb in line

Changes to the DeKalb Board of Ethics

  • The board's members were replaced in January. They were chosen by community groups, judges and state legislators instead of by DeKalb County's commissioners and CEO.
  • The board lost the ability to remove or suspend elected officials from office. It gained the power to levy fines up to $1,000 and refer cases to be prosecuted by DeKalb's solicitor, with fines up to $1,000 per violation and as much as six months imprisonment.
  • The full-time ethics officer will conduct ethics training, accept ethics complaints and monitor government behavior.
  • Anonymous ethics complaints will be accepted by the ethics officer.

Source: House Bill 597

Georgia's former ethics commission director, ousted from that job after investigating Gov. Nathan Deal, stepped into another potential minefield Tuesday: corruption-plagued DeKalb County.

Stacey Kalberman's appointment as the county's first chief ethics officer was approved 6-0 by the DeKalb Commission. The position was created as part of a government overhaul approved by 92 percent of voters in November.

Over the past several years, numerous government officials and employees have been found guilty of corruption-related crimes, while many of those not charged have been accused of having conflicts of interest or abusing tax money.

Kalberman said she will stand up for DeKalb residents and resist political pressure.

“People have to be able to trust their government, and they have to know their government is working in their interest,” Kalberman said in an interview Tuesday. “You can’t have a strong democratic government without good ethics.”

Kalberman will be responsible training the county’s 6,000 employees about ethical rules and investigating misbehavior.

Supporters of Kalberman said she already proved herself when she was executive director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Finance Commission.

Kalberman won a lawsuit in 2014 alleging she was forced from the job for aggressively investigating Deal's 2010 political campaign. The state agreed to pay Kalberman and her attorneys a $1.15 million settlement after a jury's verdict in her favor.

The commission cleared Deal of major charges and asked him to pay $3,350 in fees for technical defects in his campaign reports.

“She’s a woman of integrity. She wears her skin like iron,” said Daniel DeWoskin, a member of the DeKalb Board of Ethics. “She’s brave and has demonstrated all the qualities that we as a board felt were important for this job.”

DeKalb commissioners, who often have found themselves accused of county ethics violations, confirmed Kalberman's appointment. But not before county residents pressured them to fill the job. About 15 residents urged commissioners at their meeting Tuesday to complete the ethics reforms that voters overwhelmingly supported.

“It should be taken as a clear signal that your constituents want a strong ethics board,” said Ron McCauley, a member of the citizen group DeKalb Strong.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said residents want government transparency and an independent Board of Ethics.

“The people have spoken,” Gannon said. “We need good government. … We have to move forward in good faith to support this new board.”

With Kalberman in place, the DeKalb Board of Ethics can restart its investigations of ethics complaints against government officials. The board, whose members were replaced in January as part of the voter-approved ethics reforms, hasn’t taken action on complaints against Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, Commissioner Stan Watson and others.

Sutton's case is on hold after she filed a lawsuit challenging the board's authority. A judge issued an order in November preventing the board from holding hearings in Sutton's case while the lawsuit is pending.

She faces allegations that she improperly spent government money, approved using county employees at a political fundraising event, and spent county funds on her personal attorney. She has said all of her spending was appropriate and related to legitimate government purposes.

Sutton abstained from Tuesday’s vote on Kalberman, saying the commission should have interviewed Kalberman before giving her the job.

“It is so important … that we don’t succumb to political pressure when we make sure we participate in good government,” Sutton said.

The DeKalb Board of Ethics unanimously chose Kalberman last month after an Atlanta firm conducted a national search. The job comes with a salary between $125,000 and $135,000.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May still has to give his approval to Kalberman before she can start the job.

“As outlined in state law, the CEO has the responsibility to review and approve the Board of Commissioners’ confirmation,” May said in a statement. “Having said that, I would be inclined to support the BOC’s unanimous confirmation, barring any unforeseen circumstances.”

Kalberman, an attorney, has lived in DeKalb for 29 years. Besides heading the state ethics commission, she has also worked for for several law firms.

Robert Tatum, a member of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, said after Kalberman educates government officials and employees, they won’t have any excuses if they break ethical rules.

“I don’t think she’s going to back away,” Tatum said. “She’s not going to back down from political pressure. We already know that’s not who she is.”