Torpy at Large: DeKalb ethics chief a needed thorn in county’s side

DeKalb Board of Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman. (Rebecca Breyer / 2017 AJC file)

DeKalb Board of Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman. (Rebecca Breyer / 2017 AJC file)

Tuesday was one of those days that cause good government boosters in DeKalb County to bite their knuckles in dismay.

First, former Commissioner Sharon "Walking Indictment" Barnes Sutton was finally acquainted with the back seat of a law enforcement vehicle for allegedly shaking down county contractors.

Later that day, the feds announced the county will have to repay $750,000 for almost certainly misappropriating federal job training funds.

We won’t go at length into Barnes Sutton’s travails. She was voted from office a couple of years ago for being a hot mess of a commissioner, and her indictment on corruption charges doesn’t surprise anyone with a pulse.

I might add she was allegedly taking cash from a subcontractor in the summer of 2014, a year after DeKalb’s former CEO was indicted, which indicates a certain devil-may-care attitude or absolute sloppiness.

But Commissioner Barnes Sutton’s legacy may not revolve around her getting indicted. Heck, almost a quorum of the DeKalb County commissioners seated in June 2014 have since been locked up. (That’s 3 of the 7 commissioners.)

Artist’s rendering shows Sharon Barnes Sutton, the former DeKalb County commissioner, in federal court on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Barnes Sutton pleaded not guilty to two counts of extortion and federal charges that she took at least one bribe from a company trying to do business with the county. Artist Rendering by Richard Miller

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No, she might be remembered as the one who got a smart attorney to deep-six the DeKalb Board of Ethics after getting tagged a few years ago with ethics complaints. Attorney Dwight Thomas, on her behalf, was able to convince a judge — and the state Supreme Court — that the ethics board wasn’t seated properly. This led to a disbanding of most of the board, leaving it ineffectual.

In response, the Legislature, in all its wisdom, decided to ask residents to vote in a referendum to create a new ethics board, one that would have less bite than the previous one. One of the big problems with the new board is it won't necessarily have an ethics officer.

RELATED | Torpy at Large: DeKalb ethics board needed a tweak, got a thwack

I mention all this because the sharpest fang on the current Board of Ethics is a lawyer named Stacey Kalberman, the ethics officer. It was largely her actions that caused the county to have to repay the feds $750,000.

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The money was supposed to be used by the agency WorkSource DeKalb to hire unemployed people or get unskilled and low-paid workers trained for better jobs. Instead, the county spent a portion of that money to augment the salaries of newly recruited firefighters and other new hires, most of whom already had jobs.

Kalberman, who came into office in April 2016, heard of a hotline complaint against the former WorkSource director, Sheryl Stone. She started digging, found indications that money was being misspent, kept digging, told DeKalb higher-ups what she was finding, then issued a long, documented report report in February 2017.

“I was disturbed they were not disturbed,” Kalberman told me.

When nothing happened, she brought her concerns to the feds.

No, there are no criminal allegations here. The county and a new administration led by CEO Michael Thurmond just wrote a check to scrape this affair from their collective shoe.

“Rather than using the funds to provide training for its citizens who needed it the most, DeKalb County used those funds to subsidize its own payroll,” said U.S. Attorney BJay Pak.

But DeKalb didn’t stop with supplementing its fire department, said Pak. Money was spent in a dozen departments, including human resources, the district attorney’s office and the planning department.

WorkSource director Stone still contends she did nothing wrong.

“We withstood annual audits from the state, the county, the U.S. Labor Department,” she said. “There were no material findings. There were no red flags. No one alleged anything, only Stacey.”

DeKalb County agreed to pay the U.S. Labor Department $750,000 that the feds say was misspent by Sheryl Stone (left), former director of Workforce DeKalb, and her department. DeKalb Chamber of Commerce photo

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Stone’s contention might be the most solid testimonial for having a good, hard-nosed ethics officer, not a glorified ethics clerk like a newly created ethics board would have.

Kalberman, naturally, agrees. She still works for the county but cannot bring cases to a board because not enough members remain to create a quorum. And if a new board is created, she’ll likely not be asked back.

The problem is she does too good a job. The state ran her off after she went after the previous governor. But Georgia had to pay Kalberman and her lawyers more than $1 million after a jury determined that the state retaliated against her because she performed her job all too well.

“This is why you need an independent ethics officer who will investigate complaints, who won’t worry about the budget,” Kalberman said.

She said Stone’s employees came to her with allegations that the training money was being misspent. “They were upset,” Kalberman said.

But under the proposed ethics board, county employees must first go through the human resources department before filing a complaint. Interestingly, the WorkSource department was working with human resources in its plan to use federal funds to train workers.

Imagine how far an investigation of those complaints would go in that arrangement. If the employees even would come forward.

CEO Thurmond says he did not necessarily remove Stone because of Kalberman’s allegations, although “it was a factor.” Thurmond, who was the state’s longtime labor commissioner, said, “I always felt DeKalb underutilized their federal employment resources.”

Stone was removed from that job in April 2018, about 14 months after Kalberman gave DeKalb higher-ups her report criticizing Stone’s handling of the federal funds. Stone was later terminated; a copy of the Sept. 28 termination letter signed by Zachary L. Williams, DeKalb’s chief operating officer, was provided to the AJC.

Asked why he didn’t act earlier, Thurmond said Kalberman “felt it was inappropriate use of money. But she did not file an ethics complaint.”

More than once, Thurmond noted the U.S. attorney’s action was a civil matter and merely allegations. “Today, as we sit, we do not know who was right and who was wrong,” the CEO said.

(Actually, look back at what Pak said. He wasn’t mincing words about right and wrong.)

“We settled it because we don’t know who is right. We want to turn the page,” Thurmond said.

So DeKalb went and wrote a big check.