Fulton’s Darnell spends freely on flowers

Longtime commissioner racks up thousands in floral expenses. Gestures support Fulton’s mission of helping people, she says.

Leah Jordan, a graduate of the Georgia News Lab, contributed to this report.

Floral expenses by Fulton commissioners, 2009-May, 2015

$13,376 Emma Darnell

$4,168 William "Bill" Edwards, former commissioner

$314 Joan Garner

$274 John Eaves, Chairman

Source: Fulton County Finance Department

How we got the story

Ciara Bri'd Frisbie, a senior at Georgia State University, requested spending records for Fulton County commissioners while a student for the Georgia News Lab, a collaboration among Georgia's leading journalism programs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Frisbie analyzed the spending and noticed that one commissioner, Emma Darnell, spent far more than her colleagues on floral arrangements. Frisbie is an investigative intern at Channel 2 and her previous reporting helped identify an $80,000 discrepancy in the campaign account of former Fulton Commissioner William "Bill" Edwards.

Over her 23-year tenure in elected office, Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell has stood apart from her colleagues for the personal way she recognizes people she likes: colorful arrangements of fresh-cut flowers delivered from her favorite florist.

Darnell has sent flowers to former employees. She’s sent bouquets to senior citizen homes. She’s sent arrangements to political acquaintances when they’ve lost a spouse or parent.

The bouquets are always accompanied by a friendly or sympathetic note from the commissioner and her staff — and the bill almost always goes to Fulton taxpayers.

Over the past six years, Darnell has billed taxpayers $13,376 in floral arrangements, far more than any of her colleagues.

Darnell says the gestures are uniquely Southern and a way to “support the residents of Fulton County wherever and whenever we can.”

But how county commissioners spend taxpayer money is getting fresh scrutiny following revelations of widespread abuse in DeKalb County, where Georgia's former attorney general, Michael Bowers, recently identified thousands of dollars of questionable expenses, including floral arrangements bought by county employees.

Fulton County itself has also embarked on an efficiency campaign, hiring Dick Anderson, a former senior executive at AT&T and the Federal Reserve, as county manager. Anderson recently told the AJC he intends to make Fulton "the best-managed county in the Southeast."

By statute, Fulton’s part-time commissioners receive annual expense budgets of $18,120 to cover typical office expenses such as postage, supplies and furnishings. There is also a line item for “hospitality.”

Darnell regularly taps the $3,000 allocated to her hospitality account to pay for floral arrangements and moves money from a separately appropriated travel account (which she said she doesn’t use very much) into the hospitality account when it’s depleted.

While her colleagues spend more on travel, Darnell usually outspends them on hospitality – and most of that money is spent on flowers. Since 2009, Darnell was responsible for 74 percent of the $18,130 total Fulton commissioners spent on floral arrangements.

“I think that the expenditure of funds are to support the residents of Fulton County. Particularly those in our districts during times of illness and bereavement, are consistent with our overall purpose,” Darnell said in an interview.

“I don’t know what the practice might be in Alaska or in Australia but in the Fulton County community, and a lot of Southern communities like ours, we do believe that it is not only appropriate but also we think that it is extremely worthwhile that government will support the people.”

Darnell acknowledged, however, that in a county of nearly a million residents she can’t acknowledge or recognize everyone in her district with a flower delivery.

Darnell has been a strong supporter of senior services in Fulton and she regularly sends floral arrangements to large senior living complexes in her district, whose residents have also returned that support to Darnell on Election Day.

Last fall, Darnell sent flowers to Dawn Luke, the managing director of housing finance at Invest Atlanta. The flowers were listed as a sympathy arrangement on county expenditure sheets, but an Invest Atlanta spokesperson said Luke had not lost anyone in her family at the time. Darnell, who sits on Invest Atlanta’s board, could not attend a meeting at which Luke was honored for her leadership in the community and sent her flowers instead.

The commissioner said she maintains a separate, personal account with her favorite florists for bouquets sent to friends, but she also conceded that the line between what’s official and what’s personal can be blurry.

Darnell said the recipients include “friends from my church…my mother’s friends.”

Darnell sent a get well arrangement at the county’s expense to State Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, when her husband Elmo was sick in the hospital in 2013, and again in 2014.

There was a political connection, of course, but Darnell was also close friends with the late Elmo James and the senator, dating their friendship to well before they were all in politics.

“Some people are both personal and political,” Darnell said.

Sen. James said she found nothing inappropriate with the arrangement sent to her husband.

“Commissioner Darnell knew him as a constituent who worked and volunteered at her office and did a lot of leg-work and talking to each other and being on the advisory committee and those kinds of things,” James said. “I didn’t know that it was inappropriate [or possibly] not legal to send flowers.”

Darnell said she’d heard nothing but positive feedback about her sending flowers to constituents and others at county expense, and wondered why anyone would care about a $50 floral arrangement when Fulton had so many other expenses.

“I haven’t heard quite so much discussion about the millions of dollars that we have spent that are questionable,” said Darnell, calling Fulton “a $2 billion business.”

“I don’t know anybody in my district, who is interested really in tracing down a $50 floral that was sent to somebody when they were in the hospital.”