“I’m not here to talk about the past.” – Vernon Jones, press conference announcing his candidacy for DeKalb County Sheriff.
He said that 90 seconds after he concluded a glowing 10-minute speech … about his past.
I should marvel at the degree of sheer political doublethinking bullsh—ttery embodied in that single line, uttered before a half-dozen news reporters who were present only to bear witness to the spectacle of DeKalb’s disgraced former CEO once more pretending to be a reasonable, viable candidate.
Is this a con? Does Vernon Jones, he of the dissolute ménages-a-trois, crony hires, million-dollar discrimination settlements, grand jury investigations and shady county land deals, truly expect to be taken seriously as a candidate for a breathtakingly-powerful political post in DeKalb County?
Perhaps this campaign can be dismissed as nothing more than a pretext for Jones to separate suckers from their political donations. Or, maybe, the man views the open seat as the low-hanging fruit. In a splintered primary, Jones could place first or second. And in a lightly-attended runoff race in July, superior ground-level campaign organization could beat the political inexperience of his competition. At least, that’s a rationale.
Sheriff Thomas Brown is stepping down to run against U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson. Brown has endorsed his chief deputy, Jeffrey Mann, and has asked his donors – mostly bail bonding companies – to back Mann as well. But at least five other people have announced their intention to run, none of whom have ever held elected office before.
I don’t know what’s more terrifying: Jones’ candidacy, or the eerie silence of the county’s fractured and self-interested political class in reaction to it. I’d like to believe it’s because no one quite knows which challenger to back yet. But the prospect of a Sheriff Vernon Jones should inspire existential dread, a general alarm and a rallying cry to the strongest alternative.
The hue and cry prevented Jones from winning his home county during his quixotic U.S. Senate run in 2008, and upended his challenge against Hank Johnson in 2010.
Instead … crickets.
So, Jones wasn’t there to talk about the past. But let’s recap anyway. Humor me.
Vernon Jones, a former state legislator and CEO of DeKalb County from 2001 to 2009, presided over a county government that a 2012 grand jury described as corrupt. Even as jurors returned charges against Burrell Ellis, the grand jury simultaneously recommended that Jones be investigated for bid rigging and theft, noting that “Mr. Jones had an opportunity to assist this Special Purpose Grand Jury in its efforts to address and make right the many flaws of his administration. He failed to rise to the occasion.”
The grand jury noted in its investigation of millions of dollars in corruption that Jones appointed long-time friend John Walker to run the watershed department. Jones had been using a pattern of creatively structuring no-bid contracts in amounts just below the $50,000 competitive bidding threshold to give the same vendors contracts. But with an ally like Walker in place, according to the grand jury report, the administration could conduct wholesale corruption of the kind that gave a million-dollar tree trimming contract to a company that didn’t even own a chainsaw.
That’s how Jones operated. He seeded county government top to bottom with political allies. Take John Walker’s sister, Joy Walker – appointed by her friend Jones after only six months as an associate judge – who resigned from her appointed seat as the Chief Judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court in 2009. At the time of her resignation, the court was reeling from a ticket-fixing scam in which millions in fines were never paid to the court.
Let’s look at Jones’ public safety leadership. After an “exhaustive” nationwide search, Jones hired Terrell Bolton, the fallen former police chief of Dallas – who had been fired after a series of department scandals – to lead the DeKalb Police. Bolton subsequently forced several senior officers into retirement and demoted others to promote politically favored officers. Another set of scandals involving Bolton’s personal use of luxury cars seized in busts, insubordination and frequent absenteeism led to Bolton’s firing in 2009. The fallout from Bolton’s mismanagement of the department continues to reverberate within the department in the form of steady personnel attrition that has gone unabated through subsequent administrations.
Jones’ questionable hiring practices caused his administration to be found responsible for creating a racially-hostile work environment. Jones was personally fined $27,750 in punitive damages by a court in 2011. The county lost about $4 million in damages and legal costs fighting the case.
Jones’ connection to the late, shamed pedophile megachurch leader Rev. Earl Paulk led the county to spend $2.4 million in bond money in 2002 to buy Paulk’s useless church property at an inflated price, then lease it for a dollar a year to a cable firm. The attorney for a woman suing Paulk for sexual abuse said in 2005 that one of his witnesses would testify that Paulk pimped her out to Jones. While under oath, Jones refused to answer questions about his sexual contact with the witness. Later, the judge — Jones’ fraternity brother and current DeKalb Superior Court Judge Mark Anthony Scott – ruled the case frivolous and awarded $1 million in attorney’s fees to Paulk – a bizarre ruling overturned on appeal.
In 2005, a 29-year-old woman from Lithonia accused Jones of raping her at his home in south DeKalb. She ultimately decided not to press charges, but never recanted her accusation. Jones declared himself vindicated. Police reports of the incident suggest Jones – who is unmarried – was trying to entice her into a group sex act.
The State Ethics Commission levied a $7,500 fine against Jones in 2005 after he accepted at least 19 contributions in excess of the $1,000-per-election limit. He also accepted contributions for a runoff campaign, which never happened. Jones’ loose play with campaign finance appears to be continuing today – he’s plainly raised and spent money on signs and stickers, but as of February 24 does not appear to have filed the necessary disclosures with the ethics commission, shielding his donors and partners from scrutiny.
I could go on. You get the point.
Among many duties, a sheriff manages the outside contracts for the jail. Sheriffs have complete discretion over the right of bail bondsmen to operate in the county, which is why bonding companies line up to donate to sheriffs’ election campaigns.
It’s the sheriff’s office that busts illegal lotteries and back room gambling and shutters gas pumps that aren’t working correctly. In a racketeering bust, it’s the sheriff who makes the seizure. There are many, many vectors through which a corrupt sheriff could funnel cash into his pocket by shaking down shady quickie mart operators or rigging bids for contractors or finagling property forfeitures.
I’ve seen Jones dismiss criticism out of hand before in public, handwaving away … well, all of this … with counter-accusations of racism and media bias to muddy the waters, before turning conversation as expediently as possible to folksy nonsense about his mother.
“I’m the most vetted, the most investigated politician in modern times, and I’m still called a crook,” he told a town hall forum in south DeKalb last year. “Look at the grand jury – I was interviewed, for an hour and a half,” he said. “The first question I was asked was whether or not I had taken money from Bishop Eddie Long.”
He likened the criticism and scrutiny he’s received to the conservative, racially-motivated political attacks on President Barack Obama. He described the grand jury as flawed and the incorporation movement in DeKalb as fueled primarily by racism, and not by corruption. “They’ve been literally bleaching and creating white governments,” he said. “Cities were not created because DeKalb County’s taxes were too high.”
Presentation matters. There he stood Thursday on the steps of the old courthouse in Decatur, flanked by a photogenically-multiracial cast of supporters in front of a Hollywood-type photo backdrop with his name splayed like a collection of luxury brands, ready to kiss babies, praise his mother and duck questions from the media.
Jones is a past master of disingenuous deflection. I watched him look Channel 11’s Paul Crowley right in the eye Thursday as Jones was avoiding questions about his past, square up, and lie.
Crowley asked him to weigh Jones’ so-called law enforcement experience and his effusive support for police against his 2008 veto of pay raises for police.
“Paul, I’m not sure where you got your information from,” Jones replied, not missing a beat. “I’ll be happy to sit down with you and check your facts again, but I’ve never, in my mind, to my knowledge, vetoed anything.”
Faced with an uncomfortable question, Jones’ first instinct was to challenge the questioners’ competence and wave it off. When Crowley walked up to him, to show him the 2008 story about the veto, he accused the reporter Jennifer Leslie of reporting inaccurately, then said that he might have vetoed police pay raises “as part of a veto of an overall budget.”
Only after Crowley made it clear that he had video tape of the event itself did Jones break down, claim that he had forgotten about it and note that he vetoed raises to protect seniors from deeper budget cuts.
Now, Jones’ veto of police pay raises isn’t exactly some mysterious trifling detail lost to time. This was five years ago. He gave a big speech about it at the Lou Walker community center when he vetoed it. The veto was contentious and newsworthy, and it sparked a letter-writing campaign to county commissioners to overturn it. It is certainly remembered by DeKalb police officers who haven’t had a pay raise in about 10 years. It was a big deal.
Jones’ claim that he just didn’t remember defies credibility.
This is what we’re dealing with.
“I’m not here to talk about how bad things were, but about how much better things can be. … Nobody outworks me.” – Vernon Jones, press conference announcing his candidacy for DeKalb County Sheriff.