Vying for Trump’s support, Vernon Jones faces history of misconduct toward women

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Three days after Christmas in 2004, Vernon Jones invited two women to his home for a casual party. Jones promised roasted marshmallows, drinks and dancing, and a viewing of “Finding Nemo.”

He called it a sleepover.

By morning, Jones would later say, he had engaged in consensual sex with the women. One of them, however, told a different story: She said Jones raped her.

Jones had just won a second term as DeKalb County’s top elected official, chief executive officer. It was years before the #MeToo movement forced a reexamination of how powerful men treat women, and Jones avoided both political ramifications and criminal prosecution when his accuser said pressing charges would cause her too much emotional distress.

Now, 16 years later, the episode complicates Jones’ recently announced candidacy for governor of Georgia. A Democrat until January, Jones is running as a Republican with the blessing, if not the formal endorsement, of former President Donald Trump.

Like Trump, however, Jones has a long history of problematic behavior toward women, repeatedly accused of threatening, intimidating and harassing women in his personal and professional lives, an examination of his record by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

ExploreFrom 2020: Georgia Democratic lawmaker Vernon Jones endorses Trump's presidential bid

The Journal-Constitution reviewed civil and criminal complaints filed against Jones and interviewed more than a dozen elected officials, activists and lawyers who have clashed with him. This examination found numerous previously unreported details about Jones’ conduct toward women spanning more than three decades.

One woman accused Jones of threatening her with a gun in her home. Another, a DeKalb County commissioner, said he purposely bumped into her after a contentious public meeting. A community activist was so unnerved by an encounter with Jones that she upgraded her home security.

About this story

As part of its mission, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the records, past experiences and policy positions of candidates for top public offices, to provide readers with backgrounds and facts that may help them make informed choices. This story on Vernon Jones, who recently declared as a Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, is based on interviews and public records, including an extensive file detailing a sexual assault allegation against Jones in 2004. The AJC shared the findings of its reporting with Jones, who declined a request for an interview. He issued a statement that is quoted, in full, in the article.

“Vernon is a bully,” said Jan Selman, a longtime arts advocate who has tangled with Jones for more than 20 years. “He has issues with women — and he has issues with strong women, particularly.”

As a state legislator the past four years, Jones routinely engaged in “monopolizing, aggressive conversations, physical intimidation and bullying” aimed mostly at female colleagues, said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. Jones dominated meetings of DeKalb’s legislative delegation, Parent said, talking over female lawmakers and leaning his 6-foot-4 frame over his perceived enemies in what she considered a threatening manner.

“He operated well outside the bounds of normal human behavior,” Parent said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Jones, 60, a self-employed government relations consultant, declined to be interviewed. In a statement released by his campaign staff, Jones said: “I am not guilty, nor have I been found guilty, of any improper conduct with anyone, at any time. But, of course, the AJC knows this. It’s unfortunate the AJC is choosing to dig up old, unfounded, one-sided allegations from my past (dating back as far as 30+ years) to unfairly impugn my reputation. After any and all false allegations, I have been completely exonerated.”

In recent years, Jones has sought to become a figure in national politics, aligning himself with Trump and appearing on conservative news networks.

“I’m a Black MAGA man,” he told Breitbart News last month, referring to Trump’s Make America Great Again movement.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Jones endorsed Trump’s re-election bid, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and publicly embraced the falsehood that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. Jones used a speech at the Save America Rally in Washington on Jan. 6, the event that preceded the deadly attack by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol, to announce his party switch.

As he prepares to challenge incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp in next year’s Republican primary, Jones is actively courting Trump, hoping for an endorsement that could sway conservative voters. Jones has visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club in Florida, simultaneously paying tribute and seeking favor.

At the resort on April 10, a few days before he declared his candidacy for governor, Jones stood amid a small crowd gathered around Trump. A cellphone video posted on social media showed Trump pointing to Jones: “This is my friend. Everything good? Everything good? When are you announcing? When are you announcing?”

Jones can be heard saying, “Next week.”

Trump replied, “We’re going to be listening.”

Trump’s Republican Party may have been Jones’ only political refuge, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

“There was no way he could run for any office above his legislative seat as a Democrat, given his history,” Gillespie said.

However, “the allegations raised about Vernon Jones certainly wouldn’t hurt him in the eyes of Donald Trump,” she said. “Trump wouldn’t eliminate anyone from consideration because they had a rape allegation that was eventually dropped.”

‘Abusive behavior’

The events of June 30, 1989, did not bode well for Jones’ future as a politician.

Three years before he was first elected to the Georgia General Assembly, a Doraville woman told police that Jones threatened her with a gun at her home. Jones, then 28, was arrested on a charge of pointing a pistol at another, a misdemeanor, public records show. He posted a $220 bond and was released from jail the same day.

Details of the episode are sketchy in public records. Reached by telephone last month, the woman who accused Jones declined to comment.

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A magistrate judge dismissed the criminal charge but ordered Jones to attend an anger management program called Men Stopping Violence. In its promotional material, the Atlanta-based organization described its mission as helping “men change their abusive behavior.”

The episode was the first in a series in which women accused Jones of misconduct, court records and police reports show.

In January 2004, Elaine Boyer, then a DeKalb County commissioner, filed a report with the Decatur police saying that after a contentious meeting, Jones “deliberately walked into her and made hard shoulder-to-shoulder contact.”

Boyer did not want to press charges. But she told the police she needed to establish a record of how Jones had subjected her and other commissioners, as well as their staffs, to “verbal abuse” and “derogatory and degrading comments.”

Jones sent Boyer two letters of apology. In the first, he said he was sorry for her “unfortunate misinterpretation” of the incident. In the second, he said any apology should not be considered an admission of criminal or civil liability.

Boyer, who later pleaded guilty to using public money to cover personal expenses, did not respond to recent requests for comment.

‘He just went off’

The altercation with Boyer occurred less than a month after a prosecutor announced he would not charge Jones in another case.

That investigation centered on a run-in between Jones and a community activist, Pauline Holder. She had complained in a local television news story about the failure of county officials, including Jones, to solve flooding problems in her subdivision, Fairway Green, near Lithonia.

One evening in June 2003, Holder said, Jones came to her house to confront her about the news story. He arrived in a county-owned car, driven by a plainclothes county police officer, after 8 p.m.

Credit: AJC staff

Credit: AJC staff

Jones was disheveled, Holder recalled in a recent interview: Dressed in an undershirt, his pants were unbuckled, his shoes untied. Holder was in her front yard, speaking with a neighbor, when Jones approached, she said, his arms waving and his fists clenched.

“He just went off on me and accused me of lying to the media about what took place,” Holder said. Jones towered over her, coming closer and closer. She felt threatened, she said, and repeatedly asked him to back away.

Then he mentioned something that shook her. He knew that her husband had recently died.

“It was like he knew this woman was alone with her child and there’s no man there, so he could try something like that,” Holder said.

More than six months later, a prosecutor determined that evidence was not sufficient to charge Jones with criminal trespass. But he warned Jones to stay away from Holder.

“He just went off on me and accused me of lying to the media about what took place. ... It was like he knew this woman was alone with her child and there's no man there, so he could try something like that."

- Pauline Holder, community activist in DeKalb

The encounter rattled Holder. She bought new home security devices, she said, and asked her brother to move in for a few weeks to keep watch over her and her son, who was then 9 years old.

She also filed a lawsuit, charging Jones with trespass and assault. Jones denied Holder’s allegations, saying in an affidavit that she “did not appear to be scared or to feel threatened by my presence.”

But in 2009, Jones agreed to an out-of-court settlement. The terms were not made public.

‘Afraid for her life’

Shortly before Christmas in 2004, a 29-year-old woman attended her first meeting of the DeKalb County Commission with what she later said was a singular goal: to connect with someone who could help her get a new job. She carried a supply of business cards, her cell number handwritten on the backs.

After the meeting, the woman waited to speak with a retiring commissioner. Jones approached, she would later tell investigators, and asked if she wanted to see him. She said no, but gave him her card, anyway.

After a couple of phone conversations, the woman agreed to meet Jones on Dec. 28, a Tuesday, for a late lunch at a Houston’s restaurant in Buckhead. They parted with no definite plans to see each other again.

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Then, as now, Jones was a bachelor, once described by his lawyer as “a single, robust, healthy male who enjoys the company of women.”

That evening, the 29-year-old said later, Jones called to invite her to his house. Jones’ sometimes-girlfriend also was coming over, so the woman saw nothing untoward in the invitation. (The Journal-Constitution generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual assaults without their consent.)

The woman’s version of what happened is detailed in more than 400 pages of police reports and other files released by the DeKalb County district attorney’s office.

Jones and his guests had drinks, listened to music and danced before settling in on a sofa, the 29-year-old told investigators. Then, she said, Jones led both women into his bedroom, where he asked them to have sex with him, and with each other.

At Jones’ urging, both women later said, they kissed and fondled each other, and Jones performed oral sex on his friend. The 29-year-old locked herself in a bathroom and got dressed.

ExploreLearn more about Vernon Jones

Jones told her she had made his friend uncomfortable, the woman said later, and he asked her to stay even after the friend left, sometime after midnight. He apologized for putting her in an awkward position, she said, and said he just wanted to talk.

She had seen guns at the top of a staircase, she said, and was intimidated by Jones’ texting with police officers assigned to his security detail.

“I didn’t want any problems,” she told investigators. “I didn’t want any trouble.”

Jones eventually coaxed her out of her clothes again, she said, and convinced her to lie in bed with him.

Then, she said, he pinned her down and raped her.

The woman told a friend and a person from her church about the alleged assault the following day. But she did not report it to the police until four days later, at the insistence of emergency room nurses after she sought testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Even before detectives took the woman’s statement, DeKalb’s police chief at the time called Jones to alert him to the allegations. An investigation conducted for the state attorney general’s office later described the chief’s call to a potential suspect as inappropriate.

Soon, the woman’s name leaked to the media, and reporters and camera crews came to her door.

The woman was petrified, said Antje Kingma, a lawyer who advised her at the time. When Kingma drove the woman from her house, she cowered in the back seat, her head covered by a blanket.

“In my opinion, based on her fear and demeanor and behavior, she was a victim,” said Kingma, a former sex-crimes prosecutor in Fulton County. “She wasn’t looking for money. She went to the hospital because she was afraid she might have picked up some kind of disease. She never wanted to be in the public eye. She was afraid for her life.”

Jones declined to talk to the police about the episode, records show. However, his lawyer, Dwight Thomas, aggressively denied the allegations.

“There was no rape,” Thomas said in 2005. “There was no brutality. Nobody beat her up. Nobody tore her panties off. Simply because she said it does not make it true.”

But at the time, investigators were looking into whether Jones had been implicated in an earlier sexual assault.

Public records contain no details about the prior allegation. But documents in the district attorney’s files, recently reviewed by the Journal-Constitution, show that investigators asked authorities in Stockton, California, to locate a woman there who was “a possible prior sexual assault victim involving DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones.”

A detective in California went to the woman’s house, but she wouldn’t come to the door. Twice he went back, then wrote a letter seeking her cooperation. She never responded, records indicate, and DeKalb County investigators never confirmed the allegation.

“In my opinion, based on her fear and demeanor and behavior, she was a victim. She wasn't looking for money. ... She never wanted to be in the public eye. She was afraid for her life."

- Antje Kingma, a lawyer who advised Vernon Jones' accuser in 2005

“There was no rape. There was no brutality. Nobody beat her up. Nobody tore her panties off. Simply because she said it does not make it true."

- Dwight Thomas, lawyer for Vernon Jones, in 2005

As the investigation dragged on, the alleged victim in DeKalb was feeling stressed. She never recanted her story, but in October 2005, 10 months after the alleged assault, she asked the district attorney’s office to drop the case.

“I have decided it is in my best interest and the interest of my loved ones that I not proceed with the criminal case against Vernon Jones,” she wrote to prosecutors. “I ask that the media will respect and honor my request for privacy in this unfortunate matter, so that my family and I will have time to heal.”

The next day, Jones called a press conference to claim he had been exonerated.

‘Don’t touch me’

With the rape accusation resolved, Jones finished out his second term as DeKalb’s chief executive. He ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost, then for DeKalb County sheriff, but lost again.

In 2016, though, Jones reclaimed his old seat in the General Assembly. He quickly became a disruptive force, other lawmakers and civic activists said in recent interviews, arguing with colleagues — especially women in DeKalb County’s legislative delegation — and derailing a bill that would have created a DeKalb County ethics board.

“He was so terrible on the delegation,” said Marjorie Hall, who leads DeKalb Strong, a civic group that was frequently at odds with Jones. “He made it impossible to get anything done in any room that he was in.”

Jones threatened to sue her over social media comments about his stance on the ethics bill, Hall said. In one text message, which Hall shared with the Journal-Constitution, Jones said his lawyers were “tracking” everything she said about him.

“He’s just a bully,” Hall said.

Jones did not run for another term last year, so the pandemic-disrupted 2020 legislative session was his last. He was still almost a year from becoming a Republican, but he sided with GOP colleagues on issues such as immigration, endorsing a bill that would have punished Georgia cities that adopted so-called sanctuary policies toward undocumented immigrants.

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The measure never came up for a vote in the House. But in early March, days before the session was suspended because of the coronavirus, Stephe Koontz, a city council member in Doraville, a DeKalb County suburb, went to the Capitol to lobby against it.

Koontz, the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Georgia, was standing outside the House chamber when she spotted Jones walking past. She called him over and started explaining why she opposed the bill.

They had never met, she said, but “he clearly knew who I was.”

Within seconds, she said, Jones became “louder and louder and louder,” claiming she wanted to protect murderers and rapists and evoking his ancestors who came to America shackled in slave ships.

“You LGBTQ folks are trying to hijack our issue to amplify yours,” she said Jones told her. “One day you’re a man, one day you’re a woman. I don’t know what the hell you are.”

Koontz placed her hand on Jones’ forearm, trying to calm him. He recoiled.

“Don’t touch me,” she said Jones told her. “I’ll have you arrested for assault.”

One lawmaker who witnessed the confrontation and another who was briefed about it shortly afterward confirmed Koontz’s account.

Jones later said he had a different recollection. In a statement last year, he said, “I believe and stand for equality of every citizen, regardless of their race, party, gender or orientation.”

But Koontz saw the episode in a more menacing light.

“He flies off and yells at women — or at people he doesn’t feel physically threatened by,” she said. “It’s Vernon’s playbook. It’s Vernon.”