No questions asked as elected officials donate tax money

A lot of elected officials boast about it, calling it public service. Using their expense accounts, they funnel taxpayer money to the churches, charities and causes of their choice.

Then they lap up the credit for the philanthropy.

It’s legal in Georgia. But charitable donations of tax money can roll out the carpet for all kinds of abuses. Money can be given away without disclosures of potential conflicts of interest or discussions of what taxpayers are getting for their money.

DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson has used his county purchasing card to give $12,000 to Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Development Inc. The tax money helped pay for programs at the county’s 500-seat Porter Sanford center in south DeKalb. On a plaque inside recognizing contributors, “Commissioner Larry Johnson” is honored as a top-level “platinum” donor.

Johnson said his name went on the plaque without his knowledge or permission. He defended the donations, though. The arts budget has taken a beating in DeKalb, he said.

“I want these young people to see puppet shows,” Johnson said. “A lot of them can’t get downtown to the Woodruff Arts Center. A lot of them can’t get to the Fox.”

Atlanta Councilwoman Cleta Winslow had the city cut a $3,000 check in August to University Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that develops low-income housing.

“That’s what I do in my district,” Winslow said. “I support those organizations that support things in the district. We’re trying to rebuild housing.”

She also gave the West End Merchants Coalition, a business group, membership payments of $5,000 in both 2012 and 2013. Tax records show the coalition lost its nonprofit status in 2011; the coalition could not be reached for comment.

Her opponent in last year’s election said the payments played into his loss.

“It makes it really hard,” said Torry Lewis, “when you’re trying to put a sign in a merchant’s window, and they’re a part of the West End Merchants Coalition, and they just got a $5,000 check from Cleta Winslow.”

Another big giver is Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond. Among his donations were $1,000 to the Atlanta Police Foundation in 2012, $400 to Antioch Urban Ministries in 2013 and $100 to Springfield Baptist Church in 2012 to help rent moonwalk equipment during a community event.

“It’s tough to say no,” Bond said. “The groups request it, and there is an expectation, I believe, in the community that those who the people help elect ought to turn that help back to the community.”

Sometimes Atlanta council members get votes of approval before handing big bucks to nonprofits. Other times, as with Winslow, they just fork it over. There’s disagreement among council members and staffers about exactly how the process should work.

Trying to clarify the rules, Bond introduced legislation earlier this year that would have required panel approval for donations topping $500. He said he got so much push-back from officials, he reworded his proposal.

Now, his legislation would just reiterate that they can give money away.

DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said commissioners have been free to donate money as long as she has been in office. In October, she attended a charity auction benefiting Africa's Children's Fund, which serves children here as well as in Africa and the Caribbean. Her $1,100 bid won a portrait of President Barack Obama.

The portrait was not at her county office when the AJC first inquired in January. Sutton said she was having an estimate done on re-framing it, and it mostly stayed in her car trunk.

Sutton said she considers the $1,100 a donation, not a purchase. She said she went to the gala with plans to donate $1,000.

The organization provides local children with tutoring, mentoring, after-school activities and books, she said. Giving to charities helps lessen the burden on government to provide services, she said.

If she leaves office, Sutton said she might buy the picture from the county and take it with her, but not for $1,100.

“You would never pay that kind of money for that little picture,” she said.