Watson said Monday he plans to repay DeKalb County, and he would no longer bill the county for his personal cellphone use, according to a statement he sent to Channel 2 Action News.
Watson put $4,882 worth of cellphone costs on his county debit card between May 2011 and March 2014 for an average of about $140 per month paid by taxpayers, according to Verizon bills obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.
Watson, who represents about 350,000 residents in east DeKalb, said earlier this month the expense was justified because he used his personal cellphone to talk with residents and government officials as part of his daily job as a commissioner.
“I do use my personal phone for county business. If the county thought it was wrong, why would they pay for it for three years?” Watson said. “I don’t see the big deal about the cellphone.”
Investigations by the AJC this year have found that commissioners have been using their debit cards for a variety of purchases, with no one from the county monitoring their spending or raising questions about unjustified expenses. Commissioners act as their own department heads, answering only to themselves about what they buy.
Although Watson said the phone charges were legitimate, he said he won’t expense his monthly bill in the future. Billing the county for personal expenses would violate DeKalb’s debit card user agreement and could result in ethical or criminal charges.
“Just to make sure I have transparency with my public and my people, I’m never going to have the county pay for the cellphone again,” he said.
Watson said he uses his county phone, a Samsung Galaxy SII, for checking email and keeping track of appointments, but he makes phone calls on his personal phone because more people are familiar with that number. It wasn’t clear how much the county pays for his official phone each month because it buys wireless services in bulk.
Watson’s cellphone bills included a monthly charge of $9.99 for the VZ Navigator app, routine calls to 411 Search at $1.99 each, late fees and $89.99 for monthly access charges. He also charged the county $267 in January 2013 for a replacement cellphone after he said his previous phone fell in some water.
Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May said the county government generally trusted its employees to use their purchasing cards appropriately, and it would be difficult to go back and audit a decade’s worth of charges.
“The question isn’t whether he was using both for county business. The question is, should he be using both for county business, and paying for both services?” May said. “Each individual person just has to take account and be ultimately held accountable by the general public as to whether that was appropriate.”
The FBI has begun questioning commissioners about their P-card use.
Stefan Turkheimer, an attorney whose practice includes political law and employment law, said charging the government for personal cellphone bills could amount to ethical and criminal violations.
“If independent people were looking at it, they’d have a hard time justifying two cellphones,” Turkheimer said. “This is not an extension of his salary. Use of his P-card is not part of his benefits package. It’s something that allows him to do his job.”
Other DeKalb commissioners charged the county for their personal cellphone bills, but they usually didn’t also have county-issued phones.
The county gave cellphones to Watson, May and Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, according to government records. May charged the county about $900 for phone products, and Sutton expensed $104 of her phone charges.
Commissioner Elaine Boyer reimbursed $3,733 worth of phone costs, but she has refused to provide copies of her bills when the AJC sought them through an Open Records Act request.