By casting District Attorney Robert James as part of DeKalb’s problems, Solicitor Sherry Boston was able to win a resounding victory Tuesday and replace him as the county’s top prosecutor.
Boston doubted James’ ability to eliminate corruption and questioned his personal integrity, citing missteps with his official spending, dealings with investigators and campaign finance filings. As a high-ranking incumbent running for re-election, he bore the brunt of voter angst over a county government stained by years of criminal behavior and dubious decisions.
Boston’s pitch to voters — that DeKalb needed a prosecutor they could believe in — worked. She unseated James, receiving 62 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and she’ll become the county’s next district attorney because no Republican is running in November’s general election.
”As the top law enforcement officer in the county, you have to be above reproach,” Boston said Wednesday. “The people of DeKalb are committed to changing the face of this county, and they want to hold all of their leaders accountable to the highest standards.”
James has said he was honest and aggressive, following the evidence where it led, but he wouldn’t bring charges unless they were justified.
Boston turned James’ perceived strengths against him.
James secured the conviction of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis last year, but it took two trials and enabled Boston to question why other corruption allegations didn’t result in charges.
In another example, James said he took the “high road” by reimbursing $1,915 in public money he claimed for business travel expenses, though that opened the door for Boston to doubt his credibility to investigate other government officials for their spending.
She further dinged him for agreeing to pay $2,850 in fines for failing to file a campaign fundraising report and other required financial disclosures on time.
“The district attorney has to be a paragon of virtue in that position,” said Bob Wilson, who supported Boston’s candidacy and served as DeKalb’s district attorney from 1981 to 1992. “There was a sense that he wasn’t playing quite right with the way he was handling public funds, and that he wasn’t handling his political funds correctly.”
James countered during the campaign that he had fought to rid the county of corruption, not just with Ellis, but also through the convictions of former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis and about 40 other government employees.
In addition, he cited prosecutions of murderers, human traffickers and more than 160 gang members.
“Despite the outcome, I remain committed to serving the citizens of DeKalb, enforcing the laws of this state and protecting DeKalb residents, visitors and businesses alike from those who would harm them until such time as I am no longer district attorney of this county,” James said in a statement Wednesday.
But running on his record fell far short with DeKalb voters.
“I was looking for someone different – someone new and real, with integrity,” said Ivory Reaves after voting at Peace Baptist Church. “Robert James hasn’t done a good job, and there are suspicions hanging over his head.”
Another voter who said he was falsely accused by the district attorney’s office, Adrian Spellen, argued that DeKalb needs a prosecutor who’s fair. Spellen was found not guilty of child molestation in 2013.
“I’ve seen the corruption,” Spellen said after voting at Martin Luther King Jr. High. “I want to see the district attorney’s office run differently and with professionalism.”
James accumulated an impressive number of successful prosecutions, but that didn’t matter to voters, said Mawuli Mel Davis, a defense attorney whose law partner donated to both candidates.
“She went in on a restore confidence platform, and that became the overarching issue,” Davis said. “And she had broad endorsements across the political spectrum you don’t typically see,” citing support from former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson.
When residents saw James prosecute Ellis, they thought he was making a political power play, said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, who backed Boston.
James sought charges against Ellis, but some wondered why he didn’t pursue others named in a special grand jury report or commissioners accused of misspending government money.
Ellis was accused of trying to shake down contractors for campaign contributions, and a jury found him guilty of attempted extortion and perjury in a second trial after his initial trial ended in a hung jury.
“People felt that Robert James was uniquely situated to go after a lot of people for wrongdoing, and he did not, or he wasted time going after Ellis, trying to elevate himself,” Parent said. “Voters in DeKalb want to see our government move in a different direction.”
James, who has served as the county’s district attorney since 2010, was once viewed as a rising star with the potential to someday run for higher office. Now his political future is unclear.
He will remain in the district attorney’s job through the end of the year, when Boston will take over.
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