An East Point city councilman sworn into office in December might not have been eligible to run due to a felony he committed nearly 20 years ago — one voters knew about during his campaign.
Another member of the council has filed a civil lawsuit asking a Fulton County Superior Court judge to determine whether Joshua B. Butler IV should be removed from the council. Some legal experts say he wasn’t qualified to run because his civil rights weren’t restored after a computer fraud conviction in 2000.
The city spokeswoman and city attorney refused to say what would happen to Butler’s seat — whether a special election or mayoral appointment — if the judge decides Butler was unqualified to run for office. City officials say they can’t comment due to the ongoing lawsuit. Butler’s district covers the southwest part of East Point, and his term is set to last until December 2021.
The situation has created tension on the council and taken up the time of its elected officials, many of whom say this disagreement dredges up the drama-filled history that the city government is trying to move past just as East Point prepares to grow.
Butler, 48, declined to answer questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution multiple times, saying any comment would come from his attorneys. His attorneys did not respond to repeated messages.
IN OTHER CITY NEWS | N.Y. business to open Fulton plant after tax breaks denied at home
Nanette Saucier, the councilwoman who filed the lawsuit against Butler, also declined to answer questions, saying she didn’t want to jeopardize the integrity of her case. Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham and other council members have voiced their frustration with the lawsuit in public meetings, but have also refused to answer the AJC’s questions about the situation.
“There is a significant remaining question of whether (Butler) is in fact eligible to hold elected office,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard wrote in a September letter to the mayor.
(Story continues below)
Howard added that he would not investigate whether Butler committed a crime, saying it was a civil matter.
The council members were asking Howard for his opinion of whether Butler had committed a crime when Butler certified on his election qualifying form that he had never been convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude.”
State law says those who have been convicted of such a crime without later going through the process of having their civil rights restored by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles are not eligible for public office.
It’s now up to a Superior Court judge to determine if Butler’s conviction on charges of computer fraud and conspiracy to defraud the government count as “moral turpitude.”
Butler was paid by someone selling himself as a “credit doctor” to victims to help someone working at Equifax adjust scores, according to federal court documents. That credit doctor gave Butler $500 for each of the nearly 60 credit scores Butler helped alter. As a result, creditors in North Carolina and Georgia extended or approved about $1.1 million in bad credit.
“There’s no question that’s a crime of moral turpitude,” said Matt Maguire, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in municipal affairs.
Maguire said it appears the same rules applied in 2016 when Butler unsuccessfully ran for the District 62 state House seat, earning 277 of the 4,483 total votes cast in the Democratic primary.
When candidates apply to run for office, the qualifying paperwork asks about past convictions, but East Point city spokeswoman Shannon Wiggins said that the city clerk’s office does not conduct background checks to confirm they are telling the truth.
As for the law’s other requirement — that civil rights be restored — the State Board of Pardons and Paroles told the AJC that it has no record of restoring Butler’s right to vote and run for office.
“That doesn’t seem to be a gray area,” Maguire said.
‘I’m a good man’
In April, Butler asked the city to pick up the tab for his legal fees fighting the civil lawsuit filed by Saucier. The council agreed to pay, but the mayor vetoed the motion.
Butler voiced his disappointment at the May 6 meeting. “I have done everything that’s required of me to serve and still I get vilified. I’ve done everything to support this city, to support my colleagues, to support the citizens. And there’s a reason why the people voted for me: Because I’m a good man.”
Butler said he wishes news outlets would stop reporting on what he deemed a politically motivated attack, adding, “these people have created all this acrimony” — like gunfire outside his house.
Hours after the May 6 meeting ended, gunshots sounded outside Butler’s home, according to East Point police’s Deputy Chief Russell Popham. He said Wednesday, about a month after the incident, that there is no indication the shots were directed at Butler. No one was hurt.
IN OTHER CITY NEWS | Plan to put 10 soccer fields at MARTA stations keeps kicking
The incident report said an officer found six 9mm shell casings in the road of the quiet neighborhood. Popham said the shooting was odd for one reason: “It’s one of our better neighborhoods.”
Former councilwoman LaTonya Martin Rogers, who also worked on Butler’s campaign, said the people of East Point are behind the councilman.
“Bringing up something that happened 20 years ago when someone paid their debt to the society, you have to look the reasons of why they were bringing it forth,” she said.
Councilwoman Sharon Shropshire told the AJC that many voters knew about Butler’s conviction when 2,080 residents voted him into office in November 2017. Butler spoke openly of his old conviction while campaigning.
“They knew, they made the decision, so if anybody has a problem of (who) should remove him, it should be the people,” Shropshire said.
‘It’s like a setback’
Situated on the metro’s southside and a five-minute drive to the world’s busiest airport, East Point was hit hard by the 2008 economic recession.
Now — with nearly 1 in every 4 of the city’s 35,000 residents considered to be living in poverty — developers have begun to bring new construction to the city.
Jim Elliott, who has been the Warner-Robins city attorney since 1985, said a city council’s reputation matters when it comes to economic development. “When relationships get to this level of animosity, it’s potentially very adverse to the reputation of East Point, and that’s probably not fair to all the officials not involved in this dispute,” Elliott said.
A bad reputation also means a city can lose out on tax dollars.
“Government people will tell you that any kind of negative publicity about a jurisdiction makes their job more difficult,” he said. “From an Economic Development standpoint … that can be very detrimental.”
But a reputation doesn’t grow overnight.
Over the past 15 years, a stream of city managers have come and gone. Six years ago, an East Point council meeting included a sideshow of two spectators being arrested and leaving a hole in the wall while being carried out.
Years of shoddy bookkeeping led to a 2013 audit finding that the city couldn’t account for $200 million in its budget. The audit also found that nearly a third of invoices between January 2000 and December 2012 did not have a purchase order.
With all that history, East Point doesn’t need new drama like this issue between Saucier and Butler, Councilwoman Shropshire added.
“For a city that has faced that for years, and you re-brand your city and people see it in a different way and then this happens, it’s like a setback for what you’ve worked hard to do: to put the city in a good light,” Shropshire said.
In other city news...
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.