How else to explain the Douglas Adams-esque levels of improbability that Watson, an aardvark masquerading as a DeKalb County commissioner, has managed to elude indictment for … something … by now?
WSB’s Richard Belcher reported Monday that Watson had a $92,000 account in the name of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, but entirely under his financial direction.
Disgraced, jailed former commissioner Elaine Boyer also had an account. Boyer would from time to time take out $50 Wal-Mart gift cards in thousand-dollar bundles, to do with … whatever one does with a nigh-untraceable cash-equivalent instrument, I suppose.
The chamber is deflecting criticism of these arrangements by attributing it to former chamber president Leonardo McClarty. It has declined to say who deposited money into the accounts. It has declined to say what other expenditures were made. It has declined to say if the use of this money was properly recorded anywhere the public might see it – something I suspect is unlikely, since the Chamber is a private organization with the transparency of a cinder block.
One can wonder at this point what was obtained in return for that money. One can wonder if Watson or Boyer recorded any of these expenditures in their tax filings, or as campaign contributions, or as business expenses. One might wonder why the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce would carry the water for these two clowns, since it means that the business community now has no instrument it can trust to express its honest interest in this county.
But what I’m wondering right now is how much of this the Chamber bothered to disclose to the state legislature earlier this year.
You see, the legislature passed an ethics law for DeKalb in March. That law, ratified by 92 percent of DeKalb voters all of 35 days ago, stripped the county commission of the power to appoint ethics board members. It instead gave that authority to outside organizations like the local colleges, the probate court, Leadership DeKalb … and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.
In August 2014 then DeKalb chamber chairman Arnie Silverman decided to terminate Watson’s account. Notably, Boyer resigned from the commission in August 2014. She pleaded guilty in November 2014. The House vote on HB 597 took place on March 19. Boyer was sentenced on March 20.
They knew they had a problem while the ethics debate raged. They said nothing.
Katerina Taylor took office as president in late 2014, and was aware of the account closures, she said. The issue of “fiscal agency” did not seem to rise to something meriting discussion with legislators, she said. Members of the legislature who drafted the bill told me last night that they were not informed of the chamber’s actions. Which is to say, an organization they were trusting to help judge the ethical behavior of government officials lacked the integrity necessary to disclose a potential conflict of interest to government officials.
“The DeKalb Chamber values honesty and transparency in government and all agencies and organizations that interact with government and the public,” a spokesperson said in response to my questions. “They are committed to advancing DeKalb County: its businesses, schools and allied partners.”
The chamber spokesperson said that it initially partnered with the county in 2011 to do a small business conference. “The chamber along with the county hosted the SBC and the chamber managed the sponsor funds and vendor payments.”
The SBC was planned by the county and the chamber. However, other events were managed by commissioners’ staff. For example, the contact number for the DeKalb International Food Festival is Stan Watson’s office line.
The chamber described it as “common practice for trade associations and non-profits to act as fiscal agents for community activities. In this capacity, they acted as a fiscal agent, accepting sponsorships for specific events. They collected donations and paid vendors through funding.”
And, perhaps that makes some sense for a small business conference with a budget of three or four thousand dollars, as Dar’shun Kendrick noted. She asked the chamber to be a fiscal sponsor for her event in 2011 and 2012. “Only way I could get sponsors,” she said. The ethics reform law of 2012 put an end to the conferences, because it made donations to these outside events fraught, particularly for people with business before the legislature, she said. Commissioner Larry Johnson appears to have had a similar relationship, though the chamber hasn’t said for what events.
The funny thing about these fiscal sponsorship arrangements is that it can be done without any of the messy public accounting trail that a regular nonprofit incorporation requires, even though it has what looks close to a six-figure budget. Kendrick said the chamber gave her a detailed accounting of her expenditures and contributions for the small business conference. But the chamber hasn’t provided a public accounting of the same for any of Watson’s events … despite Belcher and the AJC nosing around this issue for weeks and a government investigatory agency asking questions nearly a month ago.
It is worth noting that the DeKalb International Food Festival prominently features DeKalb politicians in its advertising. In 2012, for example, Stan Watson and disgraced, jailed former CEO Burrell Ellis get air time with their official titles in the ad spot.
This year’s festival was also billed as sponsored by Watson … and interim CEO Lee May.
The chamber closed Boyer’s account in 2013, transferring it to the Dekalb Development Authority, led then by Judy Turner, President of Private Bank of Decatur. The money was only used for Boyer’s annual employee picnic, the chamber said, with no more than $13,000 to $15,000 remaining when the entire balance was transferred.
The chamber sent Watson’s balance to the South DeKalb YMCA, which has had its own weird tie ups with the county. The county scuttled a financially-questionable deal last year calling for DeKalb to use bond funds to buy the facility for $4.95 million and then lease it back to the Y.
The chamber sent the YMCA the $13,000 left in Watson’s account in 2014, right when this discussion was on the table. “Stan received a letter in 2013 to close the account,” the chamber said. “He did not respond immediately and when the new president came in last year, he was sent another letter and called and (we) told him he had 30 days to close the account.”
I’ve long assumed that the only way to right the ship in DeKalb’s rotten government would start with the business community putting its foot down. I’m beginning to understand why it didn’t: the instrument business leaders would have hoped to use was itself compromised.
Taylor’s view of this is that fiscal agency is uncontroversial. Normally it might be. But context matters.
The checks ostensibly in support of events with Commissioner Stan Watson’s name and political title plastered all over them, managed by county government staff, were made out to the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. We can only guess at who wrote those checks, because the Chamber won’t say. We can only guess at how the money was spent, because the Chamber won’t say.
The Chamber is planning a summit of business leaders dedicated to answering public and media questions and advancing this county we love to call home, it said.
I don’t care. No one should.
The real damage done by the rolling corruption problems in DeKalb is to economic development. People do not want to do business in a place that requires envelopes passed under the table. The chamber has now become part of that damage. Cosmetic after-the-fact ass covering won’t change that.
Stan Watson should resign for the good of the county. It seems like a trivial observation to make at this point, but it’s one that none of DeKalb’s sclerotic political class can quite see clearly enough to describe aloud. The silence of other commissioners, of a duped legislature, of other elected officials, civic leaders and, yes, the business community, speaks volumes.
Either we tell him to go, or we say this is what we’ll accept. Never mind Watson’s deal with the devil. That’s ours.
(Note: This story has been corrected — it initially attributed the Wal-Mart gift card receipt to Watson, when in fact it was from Boyer’s account. I have also added additional detail after conversation with the chamber president, as well as correctly noting the leadership of the Development Authority in 2013.)