DeKalb: No One Watches The Watchmen

You could see the moment Viola Davis’ heart broke tonight.

Commissioner Stan Watson had just been found guilty of three counts of violating DeKalb’s ethics code, despite comic attempts by new ethics board appointees to squirm out of their duty to vote. But the board’s six members — including its stalwart chairman John Ernst — had unanimously declined to remove Watson from office for the sin of voting to award a million-dollar contract to a company he worked for.

Still, the board has the power to suspend a commissioner for 30 days without pay. It’s a small punishment, but a material one. Ernst voted for a suspension. And then four commissioners voted against it.

The result, after a year of staccato steps and legal maneuvering was a mere censure. Stan Watson: you suck. The end.

Davis’ bright eyes went dead.  

Davis has been leading watchdog efforts in DeKalb County for at least a decade through the Unhappy Taxpayers and Voters group, and a victory was in her hands. The investigator presented three years of W-2 forms showing payments of thousands of dollars to Watson from APD Solutions. Watson’s vote is on record and on tape, and he told investigators he was employed by APD when he voted.

Watson, naturally, did not present himself to the ethics board Thursday, and why would he? If he were later charged with a crime for violating his oath of office, anything he said to the board would be evidence in a trial. Instead, he sent a criminal defense lawyer to blow as much smoke as possible in the face of the board while limiting legal blowback later.

The ethics board itself has been in a state of intermittent turmoil for years, by design. While on paper it has sweeping powers to subpoena and remove public officials from office, in practice its budget is beholden to the commission it watches, staffed with appointees from commissioners eager to avoid censure. Only in the face of federal charges on a commissioner and a wroth state legislature have county politicians allowed some semblance of functionality to re-emerge.

A month ago, commissioners interim CEO Lee May finally appointed two new board members, permitting a routine quorum again. Nicole Forman is a former communications aide to the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and a junior marketing staffer for DeKalb Medical. Christopher Bruce is a workers compensation attorney who worked briefly for DeKalb Solicitor Sherry Boston.

Both had to know the job when they took it. But Forman pleaded ignorance throughout the meeting, ultimately voting against all measures to punish. Bruce tried mightily to wriggle out of having to vote at all, asking at first to abstain, then to recuse himself … without citing a valid justification … before voting for a guilty finding. He then voted against all subsequent punishments.

A board stocked with appointees from the commission, asked to hold the commission accountable while itself beholden in indirect ways to that very commission, did what might be expected.

Ernst’s patience has been worn away. “I don’t believe the ethics board went far enough,” he said after the hearing. “I don’t think it helps solve the crisis of confidence in DeKalb.”

Davis was somewhat less reserved. “You can be three times guilty, but if you have cronies, you can break every law because you’re above it,” she said to the board, exasperated in the face of another continuance.

She and her crew have spent the equivalent of $100,000 in man-hours pursuing ethics charges, using the system that’s in place, she said. She shows up to hearings, and meetings, and town halls. She sends documents to the ethics board, and the district attorney, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, looking to stop bid rigging and a pay-to-play contracting system.

“This spit in the face of the taxpayers of DeKalb,” she said. “If the most you’re going to do is a reprimand while vendors come to us to say that they don’t want to pay kickbacks … it’s obvious to you that our time isn’t worth a dollar.”

Joel Edwards, with Davis’s group, agreed. “I don’t have time for new board members to learn the process they’ve been to class for. The evidence is here. You’ve been shown the evidence. And he’s guilty.”

For those relying on the formal processes of county government to stem corruption, Thursday’s vote was a knockout punch. The commission cut funding for Mike Bowers internal investigation in its budget last month. It also refused a $200,000 request from the district attorney to hire more investigators and prosecutors in its public corruption unit, which will assuredly contribute to the relative dearth of county-level corruption prosecutions.

The DeKalb commission held a vote without public hearings or public comment to give $12 million in public funds for a private sports stadium last week. And now this: an ethics board stocked with members who will not punish wrongdoing by elected officials.

We are left to wait for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI to step in. The internal mechanisms have failed.

 

20 comments

  1. tomfromdecatur says:

    The way the sentence reads about DeKalb Medical: ” junior marketing staffer for DeKalb Medical … which depends directly on the commission for its budget. ” it implies DeKalb Medical gets it budget and funding from Dekalb County. If you look on DeKalb Medical’s website, it clearly states “DeKalb Medical is a not-for-profit hospital system that receives no tax support from local, state or federal governments.”. I believe it has been since the early 1990’s that Dekalb Medical has been a not for profit hospital. You might double check the statement in your piece.
    Disclosure: I do have an affiliation with the hospital’s foundation, but not the hospital.

      • Progressive Dem says:

        You are also incorrect about the Commissioners appointing Forman and Bruce. Lee May appointed them.

      • RAJ says:

        Nikki has a conflict of interest being on this board and should resign. Her immediate supervisor who is responsible for her pay and promotion is a Board Member of the Hospital Authority and he is subject to rulings of the Board of Ethics. Another case of Lee May not properly vetting his appointees. Not her fault…she just needs to step aside so an ethics complaint does not have to be filed against her. This was all discussed in her training session so it’s no surprise, just unfortunate.

  2. benevolus says:

    Somebody needs to say “amnesty for all past possible transgressions, but here’s the rules going forward…”
    Nobody is going to vote for something that might get them in trouble.

  3. Progressive Dem says:

    I agree with the general thrust of you post, but the blame or responsibility for the actions of the two new members Ms. Forman and Mr. Bruce lays at the doorstep of Lee May. The Board of Commissioners did not even confirm them. They are responsible for the selection and appointment of the 5 other board members.

    • George Chidi says:

      I’ve amended the story, again, to reflect this. I am declaring a moratorium on writing after 12 a.m., and per standing convention take full responsibility for the error and blame others.

  4. ProsecuteThis says:

    Perhaps a good old rumor should start floating around. Something akin to “If you have committed a crime and are concerned about being prosecuted, you should probably terminate your employment with the County by the following date. If you remain a contractor or an employee after this date, you will be prosecuted.”

    Might be an inexpensive way to clear out the bad ones, and an easy way to attach targets.

  5. waitaminit says:

    so what were you advocating George–the suspension or removal?
    (1) Suspension in order–a proven violation–“mistake” or not
    (2)The idea that someone would be (or even could be) removed from office–overturning an election without a recall–is ludicrous. Regardless of what DeKalb’s statute says, likely no other county in the nation has that statute–nor has it ever been done if the statute exists. If so, goes straight to a state’s Supreme Court.

      • waitaminit says:

        sorry–I should have been more precise–“removed from office by an ethics board”.

        The governor (or state body) removing a local official has very few precedents–and probably none in Georgia. Michigan has a law that is notorious now.
        You’ll see this expand in the future in Georgia now that its been done in DeKalb–and will go back to the Supreme Court on different terms than with Dr. Walker’s suit.

    • RAJ says:

      Sorry….not a DeKalb Statute but a STATE Law….Check HB590. I ask for a 60 day suspension, board reduced it to 30 days and the DeKalb Ethics Board will spend about $250K for nothing this year!

  6. Progressive Dem says:

    Where is Sam Olens?

    Watson should be indicted for falsifying his disclosure documents. If not, the Attorney General is saying the DeKalb standards of ethics are just peachy.

    • SallyForth says:

      Great point, P/D! Sam, Sam, to the rescue – we are drowning in an ocean of illegal activity and malfeasance! Here, you can borrow my horse!

  7. Brian Basden says:

    I think you meant suspend instead of suspect: “Still, the board has the power to suspect a commissioner for 30 days without pay.”

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