Metro Atlanta ethics oversight vulnerable after court ruling

The DeKalb County Board of Ethics during a meeting June 30, 2016. From left are Board of Ethics members Robert Tatum, Shermanetta Carter, Daniel DeWoskin and Greg Russell. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
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The DeKalb County Board of Ethics during a meeting June 30, 2016. From left are Board of Ethics members Robert Tatum, Shermanetta Carter, Daniel DeWoskin and Greg Russell. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Officials across metro Atlanta are worried they'll be forced to dismantle local ethics boards that investigate government misbehavior after a judge ruled last week that the way DeKalb County's panel is chosen is unconstitutional.

As in DeKalb, ethics boards in Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, as well as the city of Atlanta, rely on community groups — like lawyers associations and chambers of commerce — to make appointments to their local ethics boards. Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson ruled Friday that appointments by those kinds of non-governmental groups are not allowed.

The ruling, which may be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, put the DeKalb Board of Ethics out of business. Ethics enforcement in neighboring areas could face the same fate if successfully challenged in court.

“If they ignore this ruling, they do so at their own peril,” said Dan DeWoskin, the chairman of the DeKalb Board of Ethics whose appointment by Leadership DeKalb was invalidated by Jackson. “I’m disappointed in the decision. The independence of the board is vital.”

With the county plagued by accusations of corruption, DeKalb voters tried to make their Ethics Board more independent in November 2015, when 92 percent of voters approved changing the way members were appointed.

Previously, the DeKalb Ethics Board was stocked by the county’s commissioners and CEO. The referendum put the selection of members in the hands of four outside organizations, two judges and state legislators.

Already, the legality of independent ethics boards is being questioned in Gwinnett, where Commissioner Tommy Hunter is facing complaints of unbecoming conduct. Hunter called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" on Facebook. Gwinnett's Board of Ethics includes appointees from the Gwinnett Bar Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“The reality is that, if an elected official has done something illegal, that’s something for law enforcement to deal with, not a group of self-appointed grand-poobas,” said Seth Weathers, a spokesman for Hunter. “It’s just too much power that you’re putting in people’s hands who aren’t elected.”

In Cobb, the same objections could be raised as in DeKalb, said Lynn Rainey, the attorney for the Cobb Board of Ethics.

“If someone had a complaint filed in Cobb County and wanted to challenge it, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said, ‘Well, Cobb appears to be similar to DeKalb and we should raise the same issues,’” Rainey said.

Ethics boards are designed to watch for conflicts of interest by public officials, as well as misspending of public money, nepotism, accepting gifts and other behavior that may be improper but falls short of criminality.

Their powers are usually limited to reprimands, which publicly shame officials for bad behavior, and fines up to $1,000.

Days after DeKalb rebooted its board, then-Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton filed suit, challenging its authority. Sutton was facing ethics complaints about her spending of public money. Sutton has said her spending was for legitimate government purposes.

“These boards are set up that way to take control away from the people and give it to a controllable body by people who have agendas,” Sutton said. “I’d like to see safeguards put in place.”

The Atlanta Board of Ethics, which was used as the model for the DeKalb Board of Ethics, has all of its seven members chosen by unelected groups that include the League of Women Voters, the Atlanta Business League and the Gate City Bar Association.

Atlanta Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova said she will discuss the DeKalb court ruling with the city’s board but declined to comment further.

In Fulton, most of the Ethics Board members are nominated by outside groups, subject to confirmation from county commissioners.

Carla Miller, president of City Ethics, a nonprofit informational group for local government ethics programs, said she prefers ethics boards that are picked by elected officials but still maintain much of their independence. In Jacksonville, Fla., where Miller is the city's ethics officer, the board is selected by elected officials including a judge, sheriff, mayor, prosecutor and public defender.

“You have to spread it out among elected officials so they have buy-in,” Miller said. “If it’s completely remote and they don’t have a say on who gets on it, that leads to more attacks and decreases its credibility.”

Georgia lawmakers may need to consider proposals to change the composition of ethics boards next year, said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.

“The voters obviously felt like this was a good way to ensure independence from elected officials,” she said. “I like the way it is … but the most important thing for me is for the Ethics Board to be robust and do its work. We’ve made a lot of progress in DeKalb, and this is an unfortunate setback.”

Clara Black DeLay, the DeKalb Board of Ethics’ former chairwoman, said appointments from outside groups are no more independent than those from elected officials.

“It’s just not a better system,” she said. “It’s on the ethics person to be ethical enough to do their job ethically and not politically.”

Who appoints ethics board in metro Atlanta?

City of Atlanta: Six major universities, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, Atlanta Business League, Gate City Bar Association, Atlanta Bar Association, League of Women Voters.

Cobb County: Cobb Bar Association, homeowners associations, Board of Elections, county employees, Civil Service Board, Cobb Commission.

DeKalb County: Six major universities, DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, DeKalb Bar Association, Leadership DeKalb, chief Superior Court judge, Probate Court judge, county's delegation to Georgia General Assembly.

Fulton County: Atlanta Bar Association, Gate City Bar Association, North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta Business League, Atlanta Airport Chamber of Commerce, county personnel board, Fulton Commission.

Gwinnett County: Gwinnett Bar Association, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, grand jurors, Gwinnett Commission and a designee of the person who's the subject of an ethics complaint.