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.