Elaine Boyer said she wasn’t going to be the poster child for bad accounting when she was first confronted about spending taxpayer dollars on herself and her family.
Instead, the former DeKalb County commissioner, once a stalwart in Northside politics, became one of the faces of DeKalb corruption.
On Friday a federal judge sentenced Boyer to 14 months in federal prison for defrauding taxpayers out of more than $100,000. She must serve at least 85 percent of her sentence, which means she’ll likely be locked up and wearing a jumpsuit for just under a year.
Under the sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans, Boyer will be under court supervision for three years after her release, and she must pay DeKalb County $87,350 — money she and her husband illegally funneled to a fake legislative consultant in a kickback scheme.
Boyer asked for house arrest and community service, but Evans said there should be both punishment and a “large dose of deterrence.”
It was another dark turn in a downward spiral that started six years ago with the couple’s personal financial problems.
“Our house was foreclosed on, and I felt trapped,” Boyer told the judge Friday. “Not even my faith or my prayers could save me.
“I should have asked for help,” she said. “I was too desperate, and I was humiliated.”
So, while posturing herself as the County Commission’s watchdog over public spending, Boyer secretly pilfered public funds.
From 2009 to 2011, the couple extracted tens of thousands of dollars from the county, using phony invoices and DeKalb County checks, which Boyer had issued by tapping her commission office’s discretionary spending account. Boyer and her husband, John, had an evangelist friend, Rooks Boynton, deposit the money into their personal bank account. She spent the money on herself and her family, including purchases at hotels and high-end department stores, prosecutors charged.
John Boyer, a chiropractor and sometime political consultant, has already pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme and is scheduled to be sentenced in May. Boyer assisted in the case against him, and in turn prosecutors recommended shaving four months off the 18-month minimum sentence she faced under federal guidelines.
The kickbacks weren’t the only way Boyer defrauded her constituents. In 2012 and 2013, she rang up personal expenses on her DeKalb County purchasing card, a Visa that acts like a debit card, drawing down taxpayer funds. She paid for family airline tickets, rental cars, personal cell phone expenses and a ski resort booking.
Her misdeeds finally came to light in early 2014, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story accusing her of spending thousands of dollars on personal purchases with her P-card. The newspaper eventually identified $16,800 in personal expenses.
Wearing a taupe-colored suit, Boyer, 58, wept in court Friday as her sister, attorney Janet Haury, told the judge how Boyer came to her aid when her daughter, Boyer’s niece, suffered medical problems. During a break, Boyer held her own weeping daughter and gave her tissue. And Boyer, addressing the judge in a plea for clemency, choked up as she asked her daughters for forgiveness.
About 30 people came to court Friday in a show of support, including her daughters, her mother, her sisters and Wendy Butler, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for Boyer’s seat last year and has been employing the ex-commissioner at her law office.
But in arguing for a 14-month sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Davis told the judge that when the FBI first confronted Boyer about the kickback scheme in July, she lied. She said the so-called consultant had gone to the state Capitol for her, gave her weekly reports and did research for her, the prosecutor said.
Then agents told her they knew he had put most of the money into her bank account.
“It was then, and only then, that Ms. Boyer admitted what she had done,” Davis said.
The prosecutor also pointed to her misleading statements to the public. In interviews with the AJC and Channel 2 Action News, the commissioner denied using county funds to float her own expenses, attributing her pattern of personal charges to sloppy record keeping and turnover among staffers who help her keep up with her own spending.
Boyer apparently thought her political career could survive the P-card scandal, and that the kickback scheme she and her husband pulled off three years earlier would stay hidden. She planned a comeback by further dipping into her office budget.
Last summer, she spent about $13,000 in taxpayer funds on an effort to repair her public image. She hired political consultant Mike Hassinger, owner of Apache Political, to design, print and mail letters to 18,500 residents, telling them how to appeal their property tax assessments. The letters had Boyer’s photo on them, smiling beside a message that began, “Dear friends,” and ended with, “I hope you find this information helpful.”
Hassinger also designed an ad for The Dunwoody Crier newspaper, updated her website and created a newsletter. The strategy, he said, was damage control.
“The idea was just to replace the P-card in the public consciousness with the good things she was doing,” said Hassinger, who was also in court Friday in support of Boyer. “Remember, at the time, nobody knew anything about that Boynton guy.”
That changed by summer’s end.
As the FBI closed in, the AJC’s continuing investigation identified the ruse with the evangelist as well.
The AJC found Boyer paid Boynton installments ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 from late 2009 to late 2011, claiming he gave her advice and did research on transportation, legislative issues and Grady hospital.
The federal charges against the Boyers say the “adviser” kicked about $60,000 to the couple and kept about $20,000 for himself.
Boynton has not been charged. Asked about Boynton outside the courthouse Friday, acting U.S. Attorney John Horn said his office is still investigating the case.
Boyer has also agreed to help in any future corruption cases involving DeKalb County in state or federal court. Horn wouldn’t elaborate on what those cases might involve.
Boyer will get a letter within the next 45 days telling her to report to a federal facility, her attorney, Jeff Brickman, said. The judge granted Brickman’s request that Boyer stay free until Mother’s Day so she can attend her daughter’s graduation.
DeKalb County Ethics Board Chairman John Ernst said he hopes her sentence sends a message to other public officials:
“That if you violate that public trust,” he said, “you’ll do jail time.”
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Stephen Fowler, a student reporter with Georgia News Lab, contributed to this story.