Kenerly plea kept Gwinnett DA awake at night

It’s a decision that Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter says keeps him awake at night.

Four years after the indictment of County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly for allegedly taking $1 million in bribes, Porter this week reached a plea agreement with the politician that calls for no prison time and no admission of guilt.

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the wrong thing in the Kenerly case, but I’m not sure I did the right thing,” Porter said. “I don’t know whether I allowed my compassion to overcome my basic sense that public officials should be held to a higher standard. I laid awake for a long time thinking about it, and I lay awake still.”

Under the plea agreement approved Tuesday, Kenerly was sentenced to 10 years of probation and will pay a $10,000 fine. He pleaded “no contest” to a bribery charge that stemmed from a 2010 special grand jury investigation of county land deals. As part of the agreement, the prosecutor dropped two misdemeanor charges of failure to disclose a financial interest in properties the county rezoned.

Kenerly has maintained his innocence since his 2010 indictment.

Porter said he had his doubts about whether a jury would find the former commissioner guilty — particularly since the man who made the payments to him says they were not bribes. But it was the bad health of Kenerly’s wife, Beth, that ultimately led Porter to make a deal. Porter said he had been considering it since Kenerly’s attorney told him in February that Beth Kenerly has stage 4 breast cancer.

“In this case,” Porter said, “what I laid awake about is, ‘Is the fact that his wife is really sick enough to justify allowing him not to go to prison?’ And I finally agreed that, yes, I would agree to that.”

There have been cases in the past where family circumstances have been taken into account, Porter said. This one, he said, does not create a precedent. Still, Porter said, he will have to deal with people asking if they could “get the Kenerly” in the future.

In many ways, Porter said, Kenerly was treated no differently than a first-offense white collar criminal whose victims were not exposed to violence.

The case had its weaknesses, he said, and he may not prevailed in front of a jury.

“I always knew there was a fairly significant chance that the case couldn’t be won,” Porter said. “In the end, Kevin Kenerly is serving a sentence. In the end, a statement has been made about his actions.”

John Heard, who succeeded Kenerly on the county commission, said, God teaches us to be forgiving. I suppose he was trying to be godly in the pursuit of justice.”

Norcross mayor Bucky Johnson said he trusts Porter to represent the best interests of the county. Johnson said the result sounds like it was “as good as it could be, under the circumstances.” And commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she trusts his work “on every case, including this one.”

Patrick McDonough, Kenerly’s attorney, said Gwinnett should be proud of Porter.

“I think Danny Porter did the right thing, even though it wasn’t popular for him,” McDonough said. “That’s important.”

But plenty of Gwinnett residents were disappointed with the outcome, and many wished Kenerly had received prison time.

Warren Petrosky, who lives in Duluth, was one of them. He said he thinks government officials get special treatment. Randy Collins, a Snellville resident, said Kenerly got a sweetheart deal.

“I think he needed to be punished more,” Lilburn resident Helen Rich said. “We all have problems in our families. It’s not a legitimate reason not to proceed.”

Those who are calling for Kenerly to go to prison don’t know all the facts of the case, McDonough said.

McDonough maintains his client’s innocence, but said the grand jury process was still a good one. It led to ethics reforms in the county, and more transparency in land purchases.

“Danny’s grand jury helped put new processes in place, and the county’s better for it,” he said.