Bad checks, foreclosure, unpaid bills plague commissioner

On Saturday, Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton told the AJC that she has made some mistakes, but her financial struggles help her better relate to taxpayers.

“I’ve lived through. It makes me more equipped to do what needs to be done,” she told the AJC. “When I look at it, I’m looking at our budget and seeing the people behind it. It’s not just numbers.”

Sutton’s finances have been under scrutiny since Thursday when the AJC learned she had four outstanding warrants for writing bad checks at a Costco in Gwinnett County.

The warrants, which were a year old, were discovered when Sutton was involved in a minor traffic accident Wednesday night on LaVista Road, according to police reports. She has since repaid the debt, which was a little over $1,000, and had a Gwinnett judge recall the warrants.

DeKalb officials are  investigating the police who allowed Sutton to leave the scene of the accident despite the outstanding warrants.

Sutton said the bad checks were just one of the problems that resulted from an ongoing battle with her home insurance company.

Sutton said she was forced to leave her home on Randalwood Court in Stone Mountain about a decade ago because of an infestation of mold. She said she has since filed a lawsuit against her home insurance company and the contractor. She declined to talk about the suit because it is still pending.

“Because of this I had to walk away from my home with nothing but the clothes on my back,” she said. “I had to start all over from scratch, buying furniture, towels, sheets, appliances.”

In September, Bank of America foreclosed on the three-bedroom house, according to DeKalb court records.

“Over the years, I managed the best I can. At some point, I had to let the house go,” she said.

Sutton said she was trying to pay the mortgage while renting another Stone Mountain home, but she got behind on her bills. The Randalwood home, valued at $162,000, remains vacant.

The foreclosure was the latest financial problem for Sutton.

“It was a struggle for us emotionally and affected our health being exposed to the mold,” she said. “Because of that, I did have some setbacks. Because of that, you lose records, you are unable to track things.”

Sutton, a single mother, said she had to move her three children four or five times that year, which only complicated her bill-paying.

Court records show in 1996 she pleaded no contest in Gwinnett County to writing a bad check to West Building Supply in Stone Mountain. She also received a citation for writing a bad check to Advance Income Services in Lawrenceville.

DeKalb court records show she was sued by Atlanta Gynecology & Obstetrics in 1995 for not paying $1,817. She also had suits filed against her by a Tucker dentist and Atlanta Addictive Disease & Psychiatric for not paying bills.

Her wages were garnished for the Addictive Disease bill, but that case has since been closed, according to court records. The case with the dentist is ongoing.

Sutton is now paying $6,950 to Primus Automotive Financial Services after defaulting on payments for her Lexus. Since 2008, Primus has been garnishing her wages from DeKalb public schools, where Sutton teaches business and career technology.

“That was just one of the symptoms of facing a time of turmoil in my life,” she said Saturday.

As for the bad checks to Costco, Sutton said she doesn’t remember writing them. Sheriff’s deputies said the four checks, for $300 to $400 each, were written in 2007.

“I’m now looking into the problem with my lawyer to see if it was my error, bank error or identity fraud,” Sutton said.

A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department said the case is closed since the debt has been paid and there is no investigation into identity theft.

DeKalb residents contacting the AJC indicated they are concerned that Sutton, who serves on the commission’s budget committee, is not the best person to represent them during a tight budget year.

A decrease in revenue is forcing the commission to slash more than $50 million from next year’s budget. The commissioners are considering a 1.86 mill property tax increase, possible layoffs and other cuts.

Sutton insists her debts are almost paid off and have not affected her ability to represent District 4 residents.

“This is not a case of being irresponsible or not managing my budget,” she said. “I’ve been through the fire and I persevered.”

Sutton, 50, was elected to represent District 4 in 2008.

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