Reactions mixed to reprimand for DeKalb commissioner’s ethics lapse

DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson speaks during a meeting Aug. 26, 2014.  HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson speaks during a meeting Aug. 26, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Ethics reform

The DeKalb Board of Ethics may undergo a transformation if voters approve a proposal to reform it in November’s election. The changes, outlined in House Bill 597, were endorsed by the Georgia General Assembly this spring.

  • The DeKalb Board of Ethics would be reappointed, with community groups choosing board members instead of the county commission and CEO. The board would be selected by The DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the county's legislative delegation, the judge of DeKalb Probate Court, the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court, Leadership DeKalb and six colleges and universities.
  • The board would lose the power to suspend or remove officials from office. It would gain the ability to levy a $1,000 fine and have cases prosecuted in municipal court, with fines of up to $1,000 per violation and six months imprisonment.
  • A full-time ethics officer would be hired by the Board of Ethics. The ethics officer would be responsible for educating government employees about ethical conduct, reporting suspected ethics violations, monitoring an ethics hotline and notifying the board of ethics complaints.

The case against DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson was clear-cut: He admitted that he voted twice to give his employer a county contract in violation of ethics rules.

He even seconded a motion to approve the contract before one of the votes.

Yet the only punishment levied against Watson was a slap on the wrist from the DeKalb Board of Ethics. The board issued a public reprimand, the least severe of three available sanctions, declining to suspend or remove him from office.

The board's decision last week upset residents who wanted a stronger message delivered against government corruption in DeKalb, which has been plagued by various scandals over the last few years.

“I’m disappointed. It’s the same old, same old in DeKalb County. There’s no penalty for bad behavior,” said Rhea Johnson, who filed the ethics complaint against Watson.

The only sanctions for government wrongdoing in DeKalb have come through the criminal justice system. Among others, suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and former Commissioner Elaine Boyer are serving prison sentences.

By comparison, the Board of Ethics found Watson guilty but declined to exercise its power — which has never been used — to suspend or remove an official from office.

“What is the motivation to make sure people don’t do this in the future if all they have to look forward to is a reprimand?” asked Viola Davis, a citizen activist who attended the board’s meeting last week. “I have no confidence in the Board of Ethics when it comes to conflicts of interest.”

Watson declined to comment Tuesday, and his attorney said last week the commissioner made an unintentional mistake.

Watson was being paid as a consultant for APD Solutions, a property development company, when he voted April 10, 2012, to award a $1 million contract for the company to rehab foreclosed homes. Watson voted again nine months later to add $500,000 to the contract. The DeKalb Commission approved the contract unanimously both times.

APD Solutions paid Watson $19,800 for his strategic advice from 2012 to 2014, according to an investigator for the Board of Ethics.

Boards of ethics can provide a safeguard for honest government by handling cases that don’t necessarily rise to the level of criminal misconduct, said Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss. A strong DeKalb Board of Ethics would levy penalties and educate government officials about inappropriate behavior, she said.

“They can issue findings, but if people aren’t held accountable then it seems like it really is window dressing,” said Kiss, who previously was the director of The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. “We need better mechanisms to ensure good government.”

The board voted 4-2 against suspending Watson. Those opposing the suspension said Watson did something wrong, but they didn’t think his unethical votes merited more than a reprimand.

Board of Ethics member Clara Black DeLay said the board, which is appointed by the county commission and CEO, wasn’t politically influenced in its decision not to punish Watson. She said there was no indication Watson was instrumental in APD Solutions winning the contract.

“People wanted blood, and it’s not ethical for the Ethics Board to go into any situation with a preconceived notion of what they’re going to do,” said DeLay, the board’s incoming chairwoman. “What happened gave the appearance of a conflict of interest or of impropriety, and it warranted a reprimand.”

But John Ernst, the board’s former chairman, said Watson’s actions deserved a more severe penalty.

“For me it was very clear that a suspension was warranted,” said Ernst, who resigned from the board Friday to run for mayor of Brookhaven. “That in fact would help the healing process of DeKalb County.”

Besides the DeKalb Board of Ethics, local and federal prosecutors have been investigating the county’s government and could still bring criminal charges if warranted.

Changes may be coming soon to the DeKalb Board of Ethics.

Voters will decide in November whether to end political appointments of board members. If the ballot measure is approved, the board would be reappointed by several community groups. It also would gain the ability to issue a $1,000 fine but lose the power to remove or suspend officials.

“DeKalb County is suffering from an identity crisis, and it needs to both address the underlying causes of that crisis and it also needs to have a system in place to make sure the conduct that has taken place doesn’t happen again,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who sponsored the ethics legislation.