OPINION: DeKalb ethics board: The journey of a snakebit agency



The DeKalb County Ethics Board conjures up many descriptions. Snakebit, troubled and cursed immediately come to mind.

A decade ago, DeKalb was knee-deep in corruption and malfeasance, leading to a public outcry that there ought to be someone watching the henhouse.

Enter the Ethics Board, which was reconstituted in 2015, was blown up by the courts, was the subject of political conniving and was ultimately reinstalled by the voters.

But we’ve hit chaos again.

In the past week, the board’s former deputy ethics officer filed a lawsuit charging racial discrimination and the board’s chairwoman has resigned saying she was the target of a toxic environment. This led Vice Chair David H. Moskowitz to resign and other resignations are imminent.

And, to make things cosmically weird, yet somehow fitting, former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who was found guilty last year in federal court of extortion, was sentenced this week to probation and house arrest and will avoid the pokey.

It was an ethics complaint against Sutton in 2014 that caused her lawyer to challenge the DeKalb Ethics Board’s configuration in court and have judges blow the whole thing up.

That’s not to say the ethics board wasn’t doing its job at the time. It was. Maybe too well and this is why some county officials didn’t like it.

The most recent altercation came when Alex Joseph, the chairwoman who was said to be a dynamo, suddenly resigned, saying other board members, especially one, were being obstructionists and even cads.

Joseph, a lawyer, fired off a memo to other board members demanding they remove fellow member Bill Clark, whom she called “toxic” and demeaning.

In a memo, she quoted part of a broadside aimed at her that she said Clark sent to all board members. In it, he allegedly said, “I have been a lawyer for more than three times as long as you have so your hanging your hat on your minute as a baby lawyer carrying someone’s briefcase as a government lawyer adds no validity to your opinions.”


In an interview, she told me, “I wanted him gone because it’s such a line to cross over to question my competence.”

When the board didn’t move to jettison him, Joseph pulled the rip chord, then so did Moskowitz.

“Maybe the whole board should resign and start over,” said Mary Hinkel, who was the chair of an advocacy group that years ago pushed to fix the ethics board.

Joseph, 35, who came to the board last year and quickly became chair, pushed the ethics board to stop using executive sessions as a crutch. Like water tries to find the lowest point, public boards invariably try to get away with doing as much of their business as they can in the shadows.

“We are an ethics board and need to do things in public; It’s a public reckoning,” she told me.” We are not like other boards. We are holding ourselves out to be better. We are supposed to be a model of transparent government.”

Clark, a lawyer who was involved with state government and was a longtime lobbyist, did not respond to messages for comment. A couple of folks long active in the community have vouched for his longtime professionalism. But while in the trenches, things sometimes get messy and mean. Throw in some intergenerational differences of opinion and, Voila! There’s conflict.

As chair, Joseph gave the advice to have LaTonya Nix Wiley (who is suing on racial grounds) put on paid administrative leave last year. Last month, her six-figure job was done away with as the board said it was cutting costs. In 2021, Wiley alleged that the former ethics officer Stacey Kalberman, who was aggressive in rooting out ethics violations, “harbors negative bias towards Black people.”

Kalberman said at the time, “Ms. Wiley’s allegations are wholly inconsistent with who I am personally and as a leader of the Ethics Office.” The board hired a law firm to investigate and last summer came out with a report saying Wiley’s accusations were unsubstantiated.

Wiley hired the veteran firm civil rights firm of Buckley Bala Wilson Mew and filed a federal lawsuit last week. They call the internal investigation a “sham.”



My hunch is DeKalb, whose leadership is predominantly Black and left-leaning, wants nothing to to with a nasty and public racial discrimination suit and will write a check for Wiley to go away. She previously left Henry County and sued, then worked briefly for Atlanta, was fired and sued. I don’t know if she is litigious or just very unlucky in employment.

I couldn’t figure out what became of the prior lawsuits. In 2018, a federal judge scheduled Wiley’s case against Atlanta for trial and she terminated the proceedings a week before having to go to court. It smells like a settlement was afoot.

Hinkel, one of the citizens who pushed to get the ethics board revised, is trying to view this “as a speed bump, not a failure.”

“We need these structures in place,” she said, “because we need good government.”

Even in DeKalb.