It started out simply enough, about eight months ago.
AJC investigative reporter Johnny Edwards decided to check on the use of gift cards by local government officials. As part of our job, the AJC works to keep an eye on how officials spend your tax dollars.
Both Atlanta and Fulton County had some scandals with gift cards, so Edwards and his editor, Lois Norder, thought it was worth a deeper look.
Edwards started by making routine public records requests — the kind any citizen has a right to make under Georgia law. He asked for records that showed which officials bought gift cards, and what became of them.
When he got to DeKalb County, he ran into some problems. DeKalb officials couldn’t definitively tell him how many cards had been bought, or by whom. A spokesman said gift cards were likely being bought with “P-cards” — debit “purchasing” cards assigned to some officials and employees to be used like credit cards so they don’t have to spend their own money on county purchases. If Edwards wanted to find out about gift cards, he would have to make individual requests for P-card records from every department in the county.
He started doing just that.
Then it got worse. DeKalb also made him submit separate requests to each county commissioner, as well as separate requests to their clerk and chief of staff.
It was tedious work, shuffling through the paperwork created by the intricacies of government bureaucratic processes. Much of it revealed routine purchases.
But then things got interesting. One commissioner’s P-card records stood out. Elaine Boyer not only appeared to have bought thousands of dollars worth of gift cards, she had charged airline tickets and other items that appeared to be for personal use. She had reimbursed the county for only some of the purchases, sometimes weeks after the charges were made. And she could provide hardly any receipts for her P-card expenditures.
And so that led on March 23 to a front-page story by Edwards. It said: “DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, a crusader for cutting government spending, has rung up thousands of dollars in personal purchases on her county Visa card.
“The purchases include airline tickets bought during times the commissioner and her husband were having financial problems, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.”
It was outrageous, although apparently not in the halls of DeKalb County government. Among Boyer’s responses: “I’ve never had any intent of doing anything (wrong). I have been totally honest and trying to be transparent in returning the funds.”
Then, she refused to talk to Edwards. And she hasn’t since.
But he kept digging.
Edwards turned his attention to the spending latitude individual commissioners enjoy in DeKalb, budgets that give them authority to spend more than $200,000 each. And his requests for records continued. He expanded his research in other jurisdictions to include P-cards and other discretionary spending.
He would find this, and have to check on that. With the kind of instincts that all good reporters have, he followed the money.
County officials grew annoyed and angry with him.
After questioning one DeKalb commissioner about his P-card use, he got a nasty e-mail from a county official. It said: “If this is all you’ve got, it’s not accuracy you are seeking. … We look forward to your article and also look forward to this degree of scrutiny applied in other metro area jurisdictions.”
Eventually, the county would charge the newspaper nearly $1,800 for fulfilling Edwards’ public records requests — a sum that would likely put such work beyond the budget of many citizens. (Under Georgia law, governments can charge what it costs to pull records and create copies.)
It quickly became clear to Edwards that Boyer’s spending wasn’t routine. But that wasn’t enough to write a story, so he kept at it.
“It was a difficult process of tracing back expenditures and whether they followed county policy,” said Norder. “It’s very time consuming.”
Unlike federal investigators, who can subpoena personal banking records, Edwards relied on just two crucial tools: public records and his determination to find the story.
And more importantly, Edwards had the obligation of fairness. Every oddball expenditure had to be checked out. If there was any possibility that it was reasonable, he moved on. But some just weren’t reasonable.
Once Edwards had his story nailed down, he gave Boyer one more chance to explain herself. She steadfastly refused to speak with him.
He went back to county officials and laid out his findings. He was preparing a story for today’s newspaper.
But then, on Monday, Boyer resigned.
On Tuesday, she pleaded guilty to mail fraud conspiracy and wire fraud.
“She ‘fessed up and got ahead of the story,” Edwards said.
A woman who served 22 years as a county commissioner was fingerprinted and had her mug shot taken. For now, she’s free and awaits her sentence.
In court, prosecutors unveiled her scheme to the public, but Edwards had figured it out before that and provided a road map.
She was paying large sums of money to an evangelist who, according to the federal charges, was kicking back the money to her.
Edwards had seen the large payouts to the evangelist in the records. In fact, he’d spent months trying to track the guy down. At one point, he called a fellow reporter who was vacationing at St. Simons Island, the evangelist’s last known place of residence.
Could you go check on the house for me, Edwards asked his colleague.
The place looked empty, she reported.
The guy hasn’t been tracked down yet.
But Edwards has kept at it. Later last week, he reported that another DeKalb commissioner, Sharon Barnes Sutton, paid her boyfriend $34,000 from taxpayer funds.
Today, his story on the front page, co-written with Mark Niesse, reveals questionable spending by another commissioner, Stan Watson. It also shows how DeKalb has laid out the carpet for corruption by failing to use even basic fraud control techniques.
“There’s nothing more important that we can do than stop a politician from stealing from their constituents,” Edwards said. “Not to sound melodramatic, but that’s what our Founding Fathers expected of the press.”
And still DeKalb officials complain about the scrutiny, implying that Edwards is somehow picking on them.
I’d call it doing his job.
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