Gwinnett commissioners drop ethics complaint against Marlene Fosque

Gwinnett County commissioners dropped an ethics complaint against Commissioner Marlene Fosque. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County commissioners dropped an ethics complaint against Commissioner Marlene Fosque. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County commissioners have dropped an ethics complaint filed last summer against Commissioner Marlene Fosque.

The Wednesday decision came after the county's ethics board recommended last month that Fosque receive a written warning for what it said were violations of county policy. The board upheld two of six ethics complaints against Fosque made last summer by D.A. King, an anti-illegal immigration activist who complained after Fosque called him "someone known for spewing hatred and bigotry and racism."

"It is a very difficult thing that we have in front of us tonight," Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash told more than 50 people gathered in Lawrenceville for a public hearing, before making a motion not to take action on the ethics board's recommended punishment. "I believe Commissioner Fosque learned something about how things work in the political world."

Nash’s statement garnered applause and Fosque, who recused herself from the board and sat in the audience for the public hearing, said she thought it was “a great decision, of course.”

Fosque said in renouncing King, she thought it was important to make sure all the county’s residents felt welcomed by her after controversy surrounded his participation in a panel discussion she organized.

“I will always create a space for people of all walks of life,” Fosque said.

More than 20 people spoke Wednesday in support of Fosque, while seven came to the microphone to say they thought she should be punished. Fosque said she was "pleasantly pleased" by the level of support. Resident after resident commended her for her integrity and bravery in speaking up against King. Her supporters included Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, a Bangladeshi immigrant and the state's first Muslim elected official in the General Assembly and Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, who said after spending 12 years as an undocumented immigrant, she wanted to support Fosque for speaking on behalf of those who were most marginalized.

King made his complaint in August after he spoke on a panel Fosque organized to discuss 287(g), a controversial federal immigration program used by the county. Sheriff Butch Conway invited King to participate in the panel to represent a pro-287(g) viewpoint. During a commission meeting a few days later, Fosque said she regretted that King had participated.

The portions of the complaint the ethics board upheld were based on sections of the county’s ethics ordinance that urge officials to give their duties “earnest effort and best thought” and to “never engage in conduct which is unbecoming” to their office.

Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who was the subject of an ethics complaint that was upheld, said he did not attend the hearing on the advice of his attorney. Hunter has filed lawsuits questioning the validity of the ethics ordinance. The other commissioners that voted to drop the issue were Jace Brooks and Ben Ku.

Some residents were disappointed in the board’s decision. Judy Craft, who lives in Peachtree Corners, said she thought punishing Hunter for comments he made about Rep. John Lewis and Democrats, but not punishing Fosque, represented a double standard. Louis Tseng, who lives in Duluth, said he liked Fosque as a person, but thought she should be held to a higher standard as an elected official.

“Name-calling divides the community even deeper,” he said.

But residents who came to support Fosque, like Derrick Wilson, said they thought she was an “outstanding representative” of the community. Wilson, who is running for a seat on the county commission, said he appreciated that Fosque took a stand against hate. Simeon Harris said it was important that Fosque rebuke King’s language, and he was pleased she wasn’t reprimanded for it.

“It’s important to call out bigotry when you see it,” he said.

Penny Poole, the president of the Gwinnett NAACP, said she was shocked that the commissioners didn’t punish Fosque. She said the decision not to do so was an important statement for the county.

“I’m shocked they would do the right thing,” she said. “Historically, we’ve never had parity. This has opened up the door. We now have ears that are hearing.”

Again and again, residents praised Fosque for making the effort to organize a discussion regarding 287(g) between two sides with disparate views. Wesley Person, who lives in Loganville, said her comments were not insulting and were not personal. She simply highlighted that King’s views were outside the mainstream, he said.

“That, to me, is what we would expect our representatives to do,” he said. “She attacked his ideas, and that’s what democracy is about.”