Former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton’s feet remained in shackles while she faced a federal judge Tuesday on charges she accepted $1,000 in bribes five years ago.
Three FBI agents had showed up to her home before dawn and taken her into custody. During her arraignment a few hours later, wearing a dress and slippers, she spoke softly to acknowledge two charges of extortion, one of bribery and the not-guilty plea entered on her behalf.
She is just the latest in a string of DeKalb officials accused of corruption.
VIDEO: More on Sharon Barnes Sutton
Sutton’s attorney, Bret Williams, said after the hearing that she served honorably on the county commission from 2008 to 2016 and denies all accusations. He said the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section has a flimsy case that investigators rushed ahead before the statute of limitations runs out next month.
“It’s my understanding and expectation that we will prove that she is innocent of these charges,” Williams said.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice refused to answer a series of questions about the case, such as why Sutton was arrested instead of being allowed to turn herself in like other public officials accused of corruption. She was released on an unsecured bond, meaning she didn’t have to put up any cash. Sutton will not be allowed to travel outside of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Northern District of Georgia unless she is granted prior authorization.
The spokesman, Peter Carr, also would not say if any of the people mentioned in the indictment were cooperating with investigators or why the Washington-based Public Integrity Section is handling the case. Other corruption cases in metro Atlanta were prosecuted by the U.S. attorney for the Northern Georgia district.
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to Sutton last week, she would not say if she had spoken to federal agents or if she knew if she was the target of an investigation.
Sutton, 59, is accused of accepting a $500 cash payment in June 2014 at a restaurant, her son unwittingly acting as an intermediary. The payment came from the owner of an engineering consulting firm that was a subcontractor on a lucrative project in DeKalb, the indictment said.
It also alleges that subcontractor delivered another $500 to Sutton at her Stone Mountain home in July 2014, and that she hoped to receive $1,000 payment every month, but the subcontractor refused.
An unnamed DeKalb employee served as a middleman between Sutton and the subcontractor, and his conversations with Sutton were recorded.
The indictment describes that employee as the county commission's former chief of staff who in June 2014 became the county's deputy chief operating officer over public works and infrastructure. That appears to be longtime county employee Morris Williams, who resigned abruptly in March 2015.
The indictment doesn’t say what the subcontractor hoped to get in return for payments to Sutton. Jeff Rader, who is now the commission’s presiding officer, said Sutton used her authority as chairman of the Finance, Audit and Budget Committee to exert “extraordinary influence” on contracting decisions that slowed down crucial projects.
“She and the members of that committee regularly held important contracts for long periods without recommendation or explanation, and a majority of the Commission honored their recommendation,” Rader said in a statement.
The indictment says the subcontractor had created an engineering consulting company in 2007 and was one of the parties in a 2013 agreement to manage expansion of the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. The contract was initially worth $10.2 million but was later increased by $7 million. The subcontractor’s cut is 17 percent.
The main contractor, a construction management firm, is called Company B in the indictment. But based on the description of the contract and the timing of its approval, that company appears to be Tetra Tech.
A firm named Environmental Consortium is one of three subcontractors identified in Tetra Tech’s agreement with DeKalb and the only one that a state database lists as being formed in 2007. Reginald Veasley runs that company.
Tetra Tech, Environmental Consortium and a third company with ties to Veasley — Metals and Materials Engineers — were all mentioned in a subpoena the county received in February that appeared to focus on Sutton's actions in office.
A woman who identified herself as Veasley’s wife said they would have no comment on the case when reached by phone Tuesday.
A spokesman for current DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said the county will continue to cooperate with federal investigators in the Sutton case. Thurmond was in elected in November 2016 in part because he has a reputation for restoring public trust in government agencies.
DeKalb’s history of corruption
With her arrest, Sutton joins a fraternity of DeKalb public officials charged with crimes in recent years:
Williams and Doug Cotter, a contractor, were convicted in 2017 of charges related to a check written in the name of Lee May, a county commissioner who served as interim CEO while Burrell Ellis was suspended from office. May's signature was forged on the check intended to reimburse him after the county caused a sewage spill at his home, but investigators never figured out where $4,000 ended up after the check was cashed.
Ellis was found guilty in 2015 of soliciting campaign donations from contractors and lying about his role in awarding projects. His conviction was later overturned because the Georgia Supreme Court said he did not get a fair trial.
Former Commissioner Stan Watson pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges he accepted $3,000 in public funds for government-sponsored trips he never took. Former Commissioner Elaine Boyer served prison time in 2014 after being convicted of fraud in a kickback scheme involving taxpayer dollars and an evangelist.
A special grand jury in 2013 said that there was a “culture of corruption” in DeKalb that led to multiple instances of bribery, fraud and mismanagement of public funds.
DeKalb Schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis was charged in 2008 of being aware of bid rigging and eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor.
Former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey is serving a life sentence in prison after killing his political rival in 2000. Prosecutors said he was trying to stop his successor from investigating corruption.
Story so far
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has written about various ethics and criminal investigations of former DeKalb Comissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton since at least 2010.
Earlier this year, Sutton received a subpoena requesting bank and campaign finance records and personal communication. Her attorney says she refused to supply them.
DeKalb County received a subpoena in February requesting records about various decisions Sutton made while in office and documents from two companies involved in the lucrative Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility expansion project and a third with ties to a subcontractor on that job. The county received two more subpoenas in April that included a request for campaign-finance records regarding Sutton plus records of meetings where the county’s contract with Tetra Tech were approved.
Sutton was indicted May 15, but the document remained sealed until she was arrested before dawn at her Stone Mountain home Tuesday. She was arraigned on two charges of extortion and one count of bribery and was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond.
Sutton pleaded not guilty.