Ga. lawmakers want control over DeKalb Ethics Board

The Georgia House of Representatives voted on many bills Tuesday, including a proposal to overhaul the DeKalb County Board of Ethics. This photo shows the House on Feb. 29, 2016. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Georgia House of Representatives voted on many bills Tuesday, including a proposal to overhaul the DeKalb County Board of Ethics. This photo shows the House on Feb. 29, 2016. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Seventeen months after DeKalb voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum meant to make the county’s Ethics Board more independent, state lawmakers might take it over.

The Georgia House of Representatives voted 160-1 Tuesday to replace the Board of Ethics with a new panel chosen by DeKalb legislators. The state Senate could pass or kill the bill Thursday, the last day of this year’s legislative session.

The legislation, Senate Bill 273, is designed to resolve a legal challenge that threatens the board's existence. A judge is considering whether board members can continue to be appointed by private groups, as voters agreed, instead of elected officials.

“It was a compromise effort,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “It’s a mixed bag.”

Critics of the legislation say it would undermine ethics by politicizing the board, which is the opposite of what voters wanted when 92 percent of them approved the November 2015 referendum. That vote removed appointment power from DeKalb's commissioners and CEO, whose behavior is policed by the board.

One member of the Board of Ethics, Scott Bonder, said he resigned his position Tuesday so he could speak out without violating rules about engaging in partisan politics.

“The proposed legislation is the devil working its fingers back into the county,” Bonder wrote in an email. The bill “would destroy the Board of Ethics and return it to being a political lapdog of the sort DeKalb voters wanted to replace.”

The head of the DeKalb ethics board said the public deserves to have a functioning ethics board that investigates cases without long delays.

The only representative to vote against the bill, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, said it's a flawed effort to address the pending lawsuit by former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton. Sutton sued the board as she was facing ethics allegations related to her spending of taxpayer money.

“I’m concerned we have the possibility of doing more damage than good,” said Oliver, D-Decatur. “There is a fair legal issue about the current appointment process, but I believe that it will be upheld by the courts. And I think Senate Bill 273 is not an adequate fix of a potential court action.”

The bill gives the county’s 23 elected representatives and senators full control over appointments to the board. The new Board of Ethics would take office Feb. 1, 2018.

The board’s seven members are currently appointed by the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court, the DeKalb probate judge, state legislators, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb Bar Association, Leadership DeKalb and local colleges.

Besides replacing the Board of Ethics’ members, the legislation would also reduce its investigatory powers. After a preliminary investigation by DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman, ethics complaints would be reviewed by the DeKalb Solicitor’s Office before being brought to a hearing. Currently, Kalberman brings cases directly to the board for its consideration.

However, the measure also imposes a limit on gifts to government officials and employees. They could accept gifts if they’re worth $40 or less per occasion and $120 or less from each giver each year. Existing rules allow any number of gifts worth up to $100 each.

Rep. Vernon Jones, who opposed a previous version of the bill, said he now supports it.

"The innocent will be protected, and the guilty will be held accountable. That's all that matters," said Jones, D-Lithonia.

But Dan DeWoskin, the chairman of the Board of Ethics, said the legislation would insert political influence into the process and drag out investigations for years.

“It can render the Ethics Board toothless and potentially meaningless,” DeWoskin said. “It’s lip service to the ethics process. … It’s tough to imagine how a complaint would go forward” after such a long investigatory process.

Sen. Elena Parent, who sponsored the bill, said she needs to re-assess the legislation before deciding how to proceed with it in the Senate. Parent, D-Atlanta, said she’s considering opposition to the legislation from the Board of Ethics and the DeKalb Commission.