Torpy at Large: Vernon Jones and his bid to ‘fix’ DeKalb’s ethics board

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones in February 2014 during his campaign for sheriff. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones in February 2014 during his campaign for sheriff. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

For the next year, DeKalb County might be left without a functioning ethics board.

The reason for this, on first glance, is Dwight Thomas, the shrewd lawyer hired by Sharon Barnes Sutton, the race-baiting, hot mess of a county commissioner who was booted by voters last year.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Sutton faced a host of ethics complaints, so her hired gun got a judge to invalidate the ethics board, arguing its formation was unconstitutional. (That decision is being appealed.)

But the reason a working board was not recreated and now limps along as a toothless tiger is Vernon Jones. Jones is DeKalb's former CEO, a man who had ambitions for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and DeKalb sheriff, but last year returned to the Legislature where he started 25 years ago because he couldn't win any of those better jobs.

Back at the Legislature, Jones proved he hadn't lost his old form — one minute making valid and nuanced arguments, the next minute bullying other legislators. Ultimately, he settled on hijacking the effort to fix the ethics board.

From the start, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said that Jones seemed to be working on behalf of Thomas to scuttle the fix-it legislation.

The Vern goes back with Thomas. In 2012, the lawyer, despite being ill, accompanied Jones to a special purpose grand jury investigating corruption in DeKalb. Thomas advised his client to clam up while testifying, which Jones dutifully did.

In its findings, the grand jury recommended Jones be further investigated, but nothing ever came of it. Jones’ successor as CEO, Burrell Ellis, didn’t bring a lawyer and testified before the same panel. He got twisted up in his statements and ended up behind bars, even though that conviction was later overturned.

So one might assume Jones feels like he owes Thomas a solid. And so he delivered.

Ethics — if not outright criminality — has been a big issue in DeKalb government for decades. In 2013, that grand jury said "incompetence, patronage, fraud and cronyism" was widespread in the county. Besides Ellis' conviction, Commissioner Elaine Boyer was sent to prison for stealing more than $100,000 of taxpayers' money.

In response, DeKalb’s weary voters (92 percent of them!) passed a referendum in 2015 to remove the commissioners’ and CEO’s power to appoint ethics board members, and have a majority of the seven members picked by outside groups — such as the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb Bar Association, and local colleges. It was meant to build a little chicken wire between the foxes and the henhouse.

The new ethics board scored a coup in hiring Stacey Kalberman, the former state ethics commission director who got run off after she too vigorously investigated Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 political campaign. A jury awarded her and her lawyers $1.15 million.

Barnes Sutton immediately sued the new ethics board, saying its members must be appointed by elected officials, not outside organizations. Last month, a judge agreed.

Sharon Barnes Sutton during a DeKalb County Commission meeting in December 2016. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Anticipating that judicial decision, state Rep. Scott Holcomb pushed a bill to have DeKalb’s state legislators approve ethics board appointments based on recommendations from the same outside groups. It was kind of ethics board Independence Lite.

That effort was undercut by Jones, who wants the legislators themselves to do the picking without interference.

I called Jones, but the last time he communicated with me was through his middle finger. But a back-and-forth he had on Facebook with some citizens from an org called DeKalb Strong gives a clue as to his thinking.

Some of its members complained about the ethics board’s dismantling. Jones responded that the judge is correct to follow the constitution. The board, he added, was created to persecute the innocent and let the guilty go.

Then Jones told Marjorie Hall Snook: "I'm sure you were just as defiant of court rulings like Brown vs Board of Education and Trump's ban on immigrants! Lol!"

Snook responded: "Which innocent people was the ethics board formed to harm? Barnes-Sutton?"

She said she opposed Trump’s immigration order. “I am also a big fan of Brown v. Board of Education,” she said, “although I had no opinion at the time, seeing as that case was decided the year that my parents were born.”

Vern, twisting her words: "It doesn't surprise me you have no opinion of Brown vs Board. That states the obvious to my point. There's my point. Politics, selective media outlets, and your friends … have already found her guilty. I'm sure you found commissioner '$100k tax dollars stolen' Elaine Boyer, her husband and her minister consultant innocent."

Boyer is white and Jones brings her up often to show corruption is universal and, apparently, to indicate white folk don’t worry about white pols’ wrongdoing.

Interestingly, Snook’s group, DeKalb Strong, was founded to fight the cityhood movement, a political march that Jones has called (not without some truth) racially motivated.

DeKalb Board of Ethics members Scott Bonder, Robert Tatum, Dan DeWoskin and Brian Deutsch during a vote in March 2017. (MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM)

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I called Joel Edwards, a founder of the watchdog group Restore DeKalb. He was for the ethics group as it was remade following the 2015 referendum, and opposes DeKalb’s legislators doing the picking.

“These folks in DeKalb County government, they all stick together,” he said. “There’s a clique. Whether you do right or you do wrong. You’re good. This is against the wishes of the people. The DeKalb delegation supports elected officials. They support each other.”

Ethics board member Robert Tatum — who was appointed by a judge, so his seat still is in effect — also liked the setup that was disbanded because of the lawsuit.

“It was transparent,” he said. “I liked how the community was able to have impact aside from elected officials.”

DeKalb is a majority-minority county, and there was criticism the ethics board had four white members, three black members and just one woman.

“I think it should be representative of the community from a diversity standpoint,” said Tatum, who is black. “I look at the ethics board as a jury. It should be a jury of their peers.”

He said maybe have the NAACP, Urban League or the county’s black lawyers association make a pick or two.

And then have DeKalb’s elected judges, who fall under a different ethics board, confirm board members with those outside groups picking them.

And please, get Vernon Jones as far away from the process as possible.

Note: Mr. Tatum has expressed concern that this last sentence will be attributed to him. But he didn't say it. I did.