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

This should have been a gimme, a simple legislative fix to put the DeKalb County Board of Ethics back in business.

But, no, this is DeKalb, where political fiefdoms flourish, personal feuds fester, racial resentments seethe and ethics enforcement suffers.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that DeKalb's ethics board was unconstitutional because its members were selected by private organizations — such as the chamber of commerce or the bar association — rather than by elected officials. This was a board created in 2015 by 92 percent of county voters tired of the words "DeKalb" and "sleazy" being uttered in the same sentence.

State legislators have for a couple of years tried to remedy the flaw in the ethics board. But there have been those in the Legislature who seem to make passing ethics laws more difficult. Notable among them is Vernon Jones, the former county CEO and renowned incendiary, who in 2017 helped scuttle a fix, thereby leaving the board largely inoperable for months.

This year, state Sen. Emanuel Jones, no relation to Vernon, introduced a simple bill to select ethics board members. Easy peasy, right? Ha!

State Rep. Vernon Jones got involved this time around. Next thing you know, the bill gets bottled up in the House, different versions pop up, and there are all sorts of secretive hush-hush meetings.

Ultimately, a new ethics bill emerged and was passed, creating a board arguably weaker than the current one. The new law, if passed in a referendum, says the appointed board members will hire an administrative assistant, not a lawyer who serves as an investigative ethics officer.

The current board has a tough ethics officer in Stacey Kalberman, who was run off a similar state position by the previous Republican governor for being too strict. (She sued, claiming retaliation for doing her job. A jury agreed and awarded her and her attorneys more than $1 million.)

So, Kalberman came to DeKalb and guess what? She’s just as dogged and hard on Democrats as on Republicans.

DeKalb County Board of Ethics member Shermanetta Carter (left) and Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman talk before the DeKalb Board of Ethics meeting on August 1, 2017. 

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Patricia Killingsworth, a former ethics board member who pushed hard for the 2015 version, says the new law will weaken the board.

Among other changes, former elected officials and ex-county employees can no longer be investigated.

“It’s being undercut for apparently personal reasons,” Killingsworth said. “I think Stacey’s the focus of everything.”

Currently, Kalberman and Deputy Ethics Officer LaTonya Nix Wiley vet cases, investigate ethics claims and bring their findings to the board. The board has heard cases against two former DeKalb commissioners, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Stan Watson. Sutton's suit against the legality of the board led to all of this.

Sharon Barnes Sutton in June 2016, when she was still a DeKalb County commissioner. 

Credit: Kent D. Johnson/AJC

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Credit: Kent D. Johnson/AJC

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said the process "has gone from one simple task to something far more detrimental. This was a weakening."

“That is unfortunate,” she told me, “because DeKalb County does not need a weakened ethics board.”

I reached out to Vernon Jones, but he and I have been incommunicado for years.

But he did send an email to Oliver (and cc’d it to other delegation members) that sums up what bubbles in his brain.

“Your goal is to protect Stacey Kalberman and your illegal ethics board members at all cost!!!” he said, with added exclamation points for emphasis.

“I will never be your slave,” he continued. “You and your totalitarian liberal cohorts will never control me with your maternalistic approach that you know what’s best for me and others.”

And Vern ended with a flourish: “I’m taking the sheet off of you and others via hell or high water come Monday!!!!”

State Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, exchanged tense emails that highlighted disagreements over proposals to reform DeKalb County’s ethics board. 

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Sen. Emanuel Jones (again, no relation, he’d be the first one to tell you) said he thinks he ended with a good piece of legislation, disregarding all the infighting, side skirmishes and varied opinions.

Sen. Jones said he had heard from others that Kalberman had “overreached,” but it was hard to pin down exactly on whom and what. “There was a big question as to what authority the ethics officer should have. … I shifted the authority to the board.”

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond advised Emanuel Jones on the bill. Thurmond has had a public dispute with Kalberman.

In an audit released this year concerning purchasing policies, Kalberman and the county auditor criticized Thurmond’s responses on limiting meals and gifts that high-ranking DeKalb officials can receive.

Thurmond shot back in a Channel 2 Action News story, although he told me he was not angry at Kalberman or the audit. He was mad that the audit was leaked to the press before he could digest it.

“My concern was the process was being politicized or undermined,” he said. As to Kalberman, he said, “The fact that you even know the name of the ethics official of DeKalb County says something.”

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Thurmond said the 2015 law to set up an ethics board was “rushed” and unconstitutional.

Referring to the selection of board members, he said, “The way the board was set up was that you can’t trust any elected officials. Those attitudes (in the public) are frozen in 2012, 2013, 2014. That’s not the current environment. Those bad old days are gone. They are not coming back.”

State Rep. Viola Davis, who was elected last year, voted for the bill for the new ethics board. Davis is no enemy of ethics. In fact, she has been a fierce anti-corruption activist and, in fact, filed an ethics complaint against ex-commissioner Sutton that brought about the lawsuit that overturned the ethics board.

Davis thinks Kalberman was doing her job well, but Davis worried that not passing a bill this time would lead to the ethics board getting defunded and going away.

“The last thing I want to do is produce something weak,” Davis said. “But there is nothing weaker than having nothing. Know that we are working on amendments to strengthen it. So, all is not lost.”

Kalberman says she was no loose cannon trying to rack up trophies. She said members of the ethics board made all key decisions in cases.

“I keep hearing ‘overreach,’ ” she said. “That sounds a lot to me like someone who doesn’t like oversight.”

I asked why she keeps getting so much flak, both in DeKalb and at the state Capitol.

Kalberman chuckled and said, “Because I do my job.”