If Gwinnett County's ethics board has its way, Commissioner Tommy Hunter will be publicly reprimanded for his inflammatory Facebook activity, with a written scolding posted on the county's website, in the local newspaper and on the wall of the courthouse.
The real decision, though, is up to Hunter’s colleagues on the Board of Commissioners — and the court system likely will have a say, too.
"We're responsible for our actions," Charles Rousseau, the ethics board's vice chairman, said Tuesday afternoon. "That's the clear message. We need to be responsible and accountable for the things that we do and sometimes for the things that we say."
After three hours of private deliberations Tuesday, Rousseau and the rest of the ethics board voted to sustain the ethics complaint against Hunter and to recommend he receive a public reprimand, the stiffest possible penalty at its disposal. The complaint was filed Feb. 6 and argued that Hunter's social media activity, including his infamous Jan. 14 Facebook post calling U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig," violated three separate tenets of the county's ethics ordinance.
The ordinance was adopted in 2011 and is intended to root out public corruption and conflicts of interests, but it does address less tangible standards.
The ethics board agreed that Hunter’s postings violated two of the tenets listed in the ethics complaint: one that says county officials should “put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to the County above loyalty to … party,” and another that urges commissioners not to “engage in conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust.”
The same Facebook post in which Hunter referenced Lewis also referred to Democrats as “Demonrats” and a “bunch of idiots.” At least one other post referred to liberals as “libtards.”
Protesters, who have attended every Board of Commissioners meeting since Jan. 17, have argued that Hunter’s words alienate a large part of his constituency. Hunter narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Jasper Watkins in November to retain his District 3 seat.
“I think if Tommy Hunter had a moral compass he would at this point understand that he had done something shameful and he would resign,” said Duluth resident Sharon Wood, one of about two dozen anti-Hunter protesters to attend Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t believe that’s going to happen because I don’t believe he understands any of this.”
The ethics board did not believe that Hunter’s behavior violated a section of the ordinance that tells commissioners to keep in mind that “public office is a public trust and is an honor, not a right.”
Hunter declined to participate in the ethics process for months, opting not to make his own appointment to the ethics board hearing his caseand not to file a formal response. He hired an attorney last week, less than 24 hours before the board heard testimony.
“Everybody took this process very seriously, with the exception of Commissioner Hunter,” said Christine Koehler, one of the attorneys who filed the ethics complaint on behalf of Atlanta woman Nancie Turner. “Just sort of further causing concern for the citizens of Gwinnett County with his behavior.”
The ethics board’s recommendation is non-binding and is now in the hands of the Board of Commissioners. Hunter’s colleagues could, in theory, choose to a different route than the one suggested by the ethics panel, but it’s unlikely anything stricter could be imposed. Suspending Hunter or removing him from office are not on the table.
The Board of Commissioners is mandated to vote on its decision during a public hearing. That hearing has been set for 6:30 p.m. June 20, Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said.
Nash declined to comment on the ethics board’s recommendations, which also included a suggestion to place further restrictions on who is eligible to file an ethics complaint. The board suggested that, moving forward, that be limited to people who are residents of Gwinnett County; employees of or applicants for employment by Gwinnett County; and contractors or vendors, or potential contractors or vendors, with the county.
Under those new restrictions, Turner would not have been eligible to file her ethics complaint.
Whatever the Board of Commissioners decides may not matter.
A lawsuit filed last week by Hunter's newly hired attorney, Dwight Thomas, challenges the constitutionality of the ethics board. It argues, among other things, that the board's use of two appointments by non-elected officials is illegal.
In a filing opposing the initial injunction Thomas requested, however, ethics board attorney R. Read Gignilliat argued that the appointments don’t represent an improper delegation of power because “the Board of Commissioners retains the sole and exclusive authority to determine whether any action relating to an alleged ethics violation is appropriate and, if so, what that action will be.”
Seth Weathers, Hunter’s consultant and spokesman, has derided Gwinnett’s ethics board process from the get-go. He didn’t stop doing so Tuesday.
“All this for a few people to tell Tommy they don’t like him?” Weathers wrote in a text message to the AJC. “Hell, I could have told you that without the waste of taxpayer dollars.”
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