Protip: Magic Marker Doesn’t Work For Redacting Public Records

June 25, 2014 10:43 am

by George Chidi · 15 comments

DeKalb County Commissioner Stan WatsonI can live with paying commissioners’ phone bills … as long as they actually return phone calls. But DeKalb county commissioner Stan Watson used his P-Card to pay for his personal phone bill, among other things, which was probably a bad idea for a bunch of reasons. It’s likely an ethics violation. It’s helped draw an FBI investigation into illegal P-Card use for personal expenses. And it made his phone records subject to a Georgia Open Records Act examination, which the AJC did almost immediately.

Monday, federal prosecutors named Watson as a player of some to-be-determined sort in a bribery and corruption investigation in South Carolina. Watson has been denying his involvement all along. And he appears to have been lying like hell  omitting key facts about his relationships.

The AJC matched his phone records to calls made to one of the defendants. Hilarity ensues.

“Without any legal justification, Watson used a black marker to try to obscure 16 calls between his phone and defendant Eric Robinson’s business line. But phone numbers and other information could still be read through the ink, and Watson apparently missed striking out two other calls to Robinson’s office, The Bridge Corporation Group.”

“Among the calls on Watson’s phone records was an 11-minute conversation on April 8, hours after the AJC first questioned Watson about whether he was the unnamed DeKalb “elected official” in a 51-count federal indictment of Robinson and Jonathan Pinson, a former chairman of the board of South Carolina State University.”

I speculated earlier that Watson’s involvement with Robinson may have something to do with the renovation of the Meadowglen Village apartment complex — now Landmark at Banyan Bay — near Doraville. The indictment shows calls made a year before this construction took place … which may mean a longer-term relationship with one of the now-convicted co-conspirators. ZMG obtained a permit for the renovation in September 2012 and a certificate of occupancy was issued in December 2012. It may be nothing, but Watson has one call in between. There may be more … but Watson claims Verizon’s earlier records were not available.

This is, of course, untrue.

As I am told by a Verizon Wireless customer service rep, “our online service provides the billing history for the past 18 months at no charge. If you need bills prior to this, we can manually request a bill reprint to be mailed to your address. A $5 Bill Reprint Fee will apply for each statement requested as well.  If there was any account transfers completed, we may have to access a previous account to request information but should be able to go back 7 years from today’s date.”

Some advice, Stan, not that you need it at this point. Use a burner phone, proxy servers and a burner e-mail account with encryption. Stay off of social media. And if you’re going to magic marker through embarrassing material in an open records release, hand the press photocopies of your redacted sheet so the raised printer strokes aren’t visible. Amateur.

Chris Huttman June 25, 2014 at 11:09 am

It’s hard to imagine that any business (including the government) in America still pays for people’s cell phones. Do they pay for their shoes too?

dsean June 25, 2014 at 11:20 am

Really? I’ve had mine covered, either directly or through a payroll addition, for at least the past 8 years over at 3 different employers. The trade-off is that I’m expected to be available 24/7, more or less.

Chris Huttman June 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Oh I know it happens my point is just who these days wouldn’t have a smartphone if work didn’t pay for it? You can get unlimited data/minute prepaid plans for $35/mo these days.

I imagine work doesn’t pay for your car but you are expected to somehow get there when you’re on call as well.

George Chidi June 25, 2014 at 3:23 pm

The phone bill is a perk in a lot of companies — the AJC used to subsidize mine. Of course, I had to be ready to take a call basically any time. The phone bill itself is a minimal issue to me, since I’d call that a valid expense if it’s a work phone … provided he never used it for personal calls.

If someone wants to get harsh, they could go after his phone’s browser history. I’m surprised his text messages haven’t been poked at … although he may not be a big texter.

But he’s got to know that his phone records from earlier are fair game now. There’s weird stuff in the indictment about a diaper manufacturing plant that got moved from DeKalb to South Carolina and some other stuff that’s too opaque to parse right now. All of it is going to come out. I don’t know why he’d try to hide anything at this point. If he’s really OK, he should show everything and get it over with. Instead he’s been denying everything all along, which is transparently ridiculous.

In 2009, a bunch of Georgia Tech employees ended up with year-long prison sentences for doing exactly the same stuff that Larry Johnson and Sharon Barnes-Sutton pulled. P-Card purchases, no receipts, no accounting for the goods. It really doesn’t matter if they paid them back or not. And using the county purchasing card to spend money “in the community” from people who may turn out to be political supporters might turn out to be a really serious problem … if anyone connected to those expenditures turned around and donated money or time to their campaigns. That won’t take much to prove.

They’re done, in jail, gone, if this is the case.

Lady Lawyer from Decatur June 25, 2014 at 4:51 pm

The writing is on the wall for the Feds to try and link P Card, telephone abuses [wire fraud], and the South Carolina bribery/corruption case into a pattern of RICO violations. If so, that level of public corruption may become unacceptable, at the highest levels.

Many suggest that a poorly run DeKalb is bad for Atlanta and that is bad for Georgia. When things are bad for Georgia, one particular West Paces Ferry resident takes notice. This may become evident by Fall. The DeKalb School Board is better, at least for now, because of a similar outcome; thus, there is precedent for this type of action.

Timing is everything and one can see that the first bit of Commissioner trouble began after the 2014 General Assembly ended. Not first with Commissioner Watson, but one of our very own – A red letter Republican.

Why Commissioner Elaine Boyer, why then?

Commissioner Boyer was formally admonished [advised] about her P Card misuse/abuse in 2011. Why did the matter just come up after the last Session ended? One may speculate because the tale may never be told…

DeKalb missed a transformational opportunity when cityhood failed over the City of Tucker v. Lakeside imbroglio – the latter being Commissioner Boyer’s patch. Economically, this new incorporation may have drained DeKalb’s treasury below critical mass. In other words, a forced reconciliation, much like in Fulton, where that County is virtually impotent, compared to the City of Atlanta.

What if DeKalb is rendered equally weak? Think about how Atlanta might actually become if BOTH Fulton and DeKalb were no longer shot-callers?

It’s ‘inside baseball,’ yet fairly common knowledge that Commissioner Boyers’ change of heart in the Cityhood matter prevented due pass on the Bill.

Who ‘dimed out’ Commissioner Boyer and her charmless sidekick, Big Tex? That story will run like silk hose after a rough Saturday night.

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.” — Emma Bull

George Chidi June 25, 2014 at 6:44 pm

As long as we’re all inside baseball about this right now …

Jason Carter’s got something close to a 50-50 shot at that West Paces Ferry address right now, and he’s running on ethics. Whatever else is going on, he’s honest. But he’s also represented part of DeKalb County, with all the madness like this swirling about. If he’s elected, and the DeKalb commission self-immolates in indictments … Carter is going to have to lift these folks out in exactly the same way Deal had to spoon out the Board of Education.

Carter can’t afford to give fellow Democrats a pass on ethics issues. He may have to drop the hammer even harder just to make a point. And they all know it.

I can’t help but note a … coolness … to Carter within the DeKalb County Democratic political community. You would think if one of our own was the gubernatorial nominee — and had a very strong chance of actually winning — we’d be marching in the streets. But not so much. It’s not because Carter doesn’t have black community support. He does. I’ve seen it. And it’s not because he has some sort of personal trouble relating to black people or black leaders. He doesn’t. I’ve seen that too, close up.

If he wins, quite a few people in the local black political food chain get hosed. A Governor Jason Carter means no Governor Kasim Reed and everything that implies. It means fewer patronage appointments to administrative posts from Reed’s crew. And it means no breathing room on ethics issues in DeKalb county … or anywhere else.

Harry June 26, 2014 at 1:25 am

Don’t bet on any of that.

Ghost of William F. Buckley June 26, 2014 at 1:20 pm

According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, GA “leans Republican”
http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/category/2014-governor/

Real Clear Politics analyzes several polling sources, most favor Gov. Deal, except outlier Rasmussen.
http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2014/governor/ga/georgia_governor_deal_vs_carter-3461.html

Interesting points speculating a what-if we had a Gov. Carter.

My speculation is that Carter would do absolutely nothing to interfere with DeKalb if elected – Breaks the first rule of ‘crats: Consensus.

Methinks you are about 5-8 years early, if ever, on your prediction.

George Chidi June 26, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Perhaps. But take an unusually gifted candidate in front of a crowd, who also happens to have lots of name recognition, access to money and no skeletons, like Carter. Have him face off against Deal. While Deal also happens to be unusually gifted — I won’t accuse him of lacking an intuitive sense of the electorate — and plainly can raise money, he’s riven with ethical issues in a state that is becoming symbolic of corruption and has some softness on his flanks.

Were there no Jason Carter on the ticket, I might say you’re right — four or eight years. I’m not so sure today. That’s not cheerleading, just a cold assessment of the conditions.

Ghost of William F. Buckley June 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

We’ll know soon enuff. I like your writing, BTW, you really should dig around on why the DeKalb mess is coming to a head. It could be a Pulitzer, you’ve got the stones for it.

saltycracker June 26, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Don’t think many questioned Jimmy Carter’s ethics either, he was a trusting, forgiving guy making him a pretty bad leader.
In politics what we mean by ethics is more often situational ethics.

George Chidi June 26, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I’ll buy that. I lived in Boston for years. I even ran for a state house seat as an independent there, once, because my rep was that shady and the legislature was … well, as corrupt as this one is. Google the Clean Elections movement in Massachusetts to see how bad it was.

I got smoked, of course.

I was young. I didn’t really know the district well. I was broke. I had no political experience. I had no community leadership connections. And I didn’t understand the most fundamental truth in politics. When things look like they’re working right, no one gives a s–t. The roads got plowed in winter. The cops did their jobs. Crime was low. Real estate values were rising. Most people were making money, and the ones who weren’t … didn’t vote. Corruption was an abstraction. Everyone knew it was a problem, but it wasn’t damaging the quality of life.

I left politics alone after that and I didn’t think about getting back into it until I saw how the quality of life really is getting trashed because of corruption issues here. It’s not a cosmetic problem in DeKalb.

Will Durant June 26, 2014 at 8:26 pm

I have a long time friend who moved back to New Orleans a few years ago after growing up there. He bemoans the fact all the time on how much easier it was there when the Mafia ran things. Mostly because they were “organized” with a hierarchy that resulted in only one palm needing to be greased.

George Chidi June 26, 2014 at 6:08 pm

It takes a kind of civic discernment by the electorate to decide to tolerate some corruption as long as the trains run on time. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think this is the indifference of despair.

Suppose some white knight came bounding along, pledging to serve honestly. Our collective skepticism is overclocked. What claim of honesty could be made, under these conditions, that the public might trust? Anyone looking to serve is assumed to be a crook by default, and the standard for evidence to overcome that assumption may be insurmountable. So the public pays little heed, and good people remain cloistered.

saltycracker June 27, 2014 at 8:17 am

It takes pretty thick skin and very secure egos with an agenda today. In Florida past we had a governor that was in with the roadbuilders, he was tossed our for an honest Republican who then took painful steps to do it honest and right. It then took so long to get a road built that the costs were significantly higher than the bad guy. Plus his attacking the small county’s run by a southern democrat sheriff who let some local stuff slide the law let the organized mobs in. We got behind the wrong good guy.

Voting based on some cool factor (gender,race) or a non-job related bias is worse than ever in the one minute mass detailed entertainment world of today. So much of what is best for all straddles the hard lines pressed on the candidates.

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