Danny Porter has been Gwinnett County’s district attorney for a quarter of a century. And during that time he has witnessed an odd, yet recurring, tradition.
“During every election in Snellville,” Porter told me, “I have gotten a request from one side or another to do a criminal investigation.”
One of those requests, from a now-deceased resident/activist named Randy Simpson, hit pay dirt and led to Thursday’s 66-count indictment of Mayor Tom Witts.
“It was a politically motivated complaint,” Porter admitted. “But just because it’s politically motivated, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Witts, who did not return phone calls Friday, will be busy trying to dig out from the legal blizzard rained down on him: tax evasion, illegally performing work for the city, lying on government documents and spending campaign donations like it was his own dough.
Porter hit him with the proverbial kitchen sink, even accusing Witts of using campaign funds from his 2015 mayoral run to purchase a membership to a porno website.
Kelly Kautz, Witts’ predecessor as mayor and his blood enemy, said she was “flabbergasted” by the number of counts, especially when considering some of the alleged wrongdoing occurred even after Witts knew he was under investigation.
In 2014, Kautz sued her own City Council for holding secret meetings, running off her appointments and trying their best to undermine her. The undermining worked, as Witts beat Kautz in the 2015 election for mayor.
But an appeals court last year awarded her $83,000 in legal fees, so I suppose she won all the way around — she no longer had to be mayor of Snellville and she did not owe an attorney a bunch of money.
Kautz said Witts’ supporters have gone on social media to blame her for Witts’ predicament.
“I wish I had that kind of influence,” she said. “But this is all Tom’s doing.”
Snellville, a suburb of 20,000 souls just east of Stone Mountain, has long been a portal to a netherworld of petty, mean, nasty and bizarre politics.
Feuds simmer and fester for decades, even as the names and faces change in the political landscape. Lawsuits are common, but sometimes old-fashioned threats of butt whuppin’ do the trick — and they are a lot cheaper than lawyers.
I’m referring to 2009, when the mayor at the time, Jerry Oberholtzer, called codes enforcement on a councilman for keeping a toilet and a broken-down car in his yard.
The mayor was apparently worried that Councilman Commode was so angry that he would give him a swirly when he caught him in the City Hall restroom. So, Oberholtzer had the police chief accompany him to the can when he had to go relieve himself.
Think that’s weird? Try this.
In 1997, a losing candidate sued Snellville, saying city officials rigged the election. How’d they do it? Snellville officials, he said, failed to put the (I) after incumbents’ names on the ballot, a designation that would have let voters know which bums to throw out of office.
As it turns out, the failed candidate had his own problems. He was a felon, meaning not only should he not have run for office, but he shouldn’t have voted for himself.
At the time, the AJC reporter wrote, “The Snellville city election isn’t a can of worms; it’s more like a bucket of rattlesnakes.”
On Friday, Oberholtzer ruminated on the continuing run of self-induced bad press.
“I hate all the bad publicity; everywhere I go, I hear it,” he said. “Some of the developers pulled out because they didn’t like all the infighting.”
I spoke with one developer who said he got out of Snellville years ago because of all the headaches.
Oberholtzer said he coaxed Witts into running for City Council in 2009 but the two had a falling out along the way, which seems to be another tradition in Snellville.
“I tried to shake his hand when he won (the mayor’s seat) in 2015, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with me,” said Oberholtzer.
He added that the atmosphere in city politics had “calmed down the past couple years. But it was because they were all on one side.”
Quiet government isn’t necessarily good government.
Snellville has repeatedly tried to change its image. Usually it involves marketing schemes or word changes, not employing good government.
Back in 2004, the city moved to change the city seal — which carried a shadowy figure known as “Ol Big Nose,” who was reaching for the sun. “STRIVING FOR THE HIGHEST,” the seal proclaimed. Last year, the city again modified the seal.
In 2010, officials changed the slogan. (Seals and slogans are two different things.)
The old slogan was “Everybody’s Somebody in Snellville,” which I suppose is better than “Somebody might be Anybody.”
Still, the slogan wasn’t working, so they tweaked it to “Snellville, Where Everybody is Proud to be Somebody.”
At the time, then-Councilman Witts, who concocted the change, said: “We’re really attempting to turn the city around. A one-word change to our slogan says a lot. It makes a statement. It’s waking up and smelling the coffee.”
He was onto something but didn’t know it. How about a new slogan? “Snellville, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.”