Gwinnett chair ‘shocked’ by Hunter’s choice to ‘ignore’ ethics complaint

Monday was the deadline for embattled Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter to file a formal response to the ethics complaint against him, but he didn’t do so — and he’s not planning to.

The decision marks the second time Hunter has snubbed his nose at the county’s ethics process. He had already opted not to make an appointment to the board investigating the complaint.

“They can continue filing unconstitutional claims,” Hunter’s consultant and spokesman, Seth Weathers, said Monday morning. “And we can continue ignoring unconstitutional claims.”

The ethics complaint against Hunter was filed Feb. 6 on behalf of Atlanta resident Nancie Turner. It alleges that — with various social media posts, including his now infamous Jan. 14 Facebook missive calling U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" — the commissioner violated several portions of Gwinnett's 2011 ethics ordinance.

The complaint is the first ever filed under the ordinance, which is primarily meant to target shady land deals and other corruption. But one section highlighted in the complaint against Hunter urges elected officials and county employees to "never engage in conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust."

Gwinnett's ethics board is not a standing body and must be assembled each time a complaint is filed. The four-person board — one member short after Hunter declined to make his appointment — held its first meeting on March 31, officially launching the 30-day period allotted for Hunter to file a formal response.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she was “not aware of anything” that would prevent the board from proceeding without such a response from Hunter. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for May 12.

David Will, appointed to the ethics board by the Gwinnett County Bar Association and later named its chairman, said late Monday he hadn’t heard that Hunter would not be filing a response.

“Obviously we would prefer that he participate,” Will said. “We will be moving ahead, even if he doesn't file a response.”

Nash was less diplomatic.

“I am disappointed and shocked that any sitting commissioner would choose to disrespect the County’s duly enacted Ethics Ordinance in this manner,” she wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Helen Kim Ho and Christine Koehler, the attorneys who filed the ethics complaint on behalf of Turner, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Gwinnett’s ethics ordinance calls for ethics board appointments to be made by five different entities: the subject of the complaint; the county’s Board of Commissioners; the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office; the Association of the County Commissioners of Georgia; and the Gwinnett County Bar Association.

Several of those organizations are private ones — a practice that, given a recent court ruling in neighboring DeKalb County, has the potential to present issues moving forward.

DeKalb County's Judge Asha Jackson ruled Friday that the use of ethics board appointments from non-elected officials was unconstitutional. The ruling was part of long-lived litigation by former Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who sued the ethics board while facing allegations of misspending public money while in office.

The ruling does not have any direct effect on Hunter’s case in Gwinnett, but it could be used as the basis for a legal challenge. Weathers declined Monday to reveal if the Hunter camp planned to file a lawsuit, but he called the DeKalb decision “a ruling in our favor.”

Weathers has previously called Gwinnett's use of appointments by private organizations "entirely unconstitutional."

“DeKalb County’s recent ruling exactly proves our case,” Weathers said Monday.

Nash, meanwhile, isn’t sure there’s a correlation.

The chairman stressed that she’s a layperson, not an attorney, but said that she sees a “substantial difference” between the structure of Gwinnett’s ethics board and the one in DeKalb County. The latter has the authority to hand down penalties by itself while Gwinnett’s ethics board only makes recommendations.

Those recommendations must then be voted on by the Board of Commissioners.