Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, won his first major legal challenge Friday when a three-member panel unanimously voted not to suspend the veteran lawmaker while he faces federal indictment.
The panel of Republican Attorney General Sam Olens, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, all voted not to suspend Brooks, after a brief hearing.
Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the panel, as required by the state constitution, to determine if the indictment would hinder Brooks’ ability to serve his district. In a two-paragraph letter to Deal, the commission said the indictment “does not relate to the performance or activities of the office of Georgia State Representative.”
Brooks still faces the 30-count indictment that charges him with mail, tax and wire fraud. His is accused of raising money for a pair of charities but using nearly $1 million of the contributions over a period of 20 years for personal expenses.
Brooks’ attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, contends Brooks broke no laws but had poor accounting practices. Brooks wasn’t paid for the work he does for the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials or Universal Humanities but was reimbursed for expenses, Barnes said.
Olens, Abrams and Henson all refused comment Friday. Barnes said he was pleased by their decision.
“If they followed the constitution it’s very clear to me,” Barnes told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And, in fact, it probably should have been disposed of summarily. There was no proof this had anything to do with this office.”
Barnes and Olens clashed during Friday’s hearing as the former governor said Olens was toying with the state constitution when Olens barred him from calling witnesses.
Barnes wanted to cross-examine government attorneys who were in the room, but Olens told him that was not allowed.
Once the commission members left the third-floor conference room of the Law Building near the state Capitol, Barnes bristled to reporters.
“The attorney general may be reading a different constitution than I am,” Barnes said. “How can a lawyer help you if you can’t question witnesses? How can it be that you can compel witnesses if you can’t call them?”
Asked why he believed Olens prevented him from calling witnesses, Barnes quipped, “You’ll have to ask the attorney general. Maybe he’s just having a bad day.”
During the hearing Barnes argued that the constitution only allows the panel to suspend Brooks if they find the indictment was directly related to his duties as a legislator.
“I suggest to you since there’s no evidence from the other side, only the indictment, there is no allegation there was any act committed by the public official in his public office and the constitution prevents removal,” Barnes said.
The panelists apparently agreed, though GABEO’s mailing address is Brooks’ legislative office.
If Brooks had been suspended his seat would have remained vacant until the next election. If he is convicted he will lose his seat in the House.
The decision not to suspend Brooks scrambles the political fallout, Steve Anthony, a political scientist at Georgia State University, said. When Deal tapped Henson and Abrams for the commission, Anthony said the governor had given Republicans political cover against charges of a partisan witch hunt. But, he said, Deal also put the responsibility of suspending Brooks on the Democrats’ shoulders, given their 2-to-1 majority on the panel.
That all changed with the unanimous vote, Anthony, who was a top aide to former Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, said.
“If the Democrats voted as a bloc they were going to get what they wanted regardless of what Olens did,” Anthony said. “It could be he just decided to go along with them. What good would it have done to vote ‘No’?”
But, Anthony said, Democrats are now immune to Republican criticism that they refused to punish one of their own.
Meanwhile, Barnes told the AJC that a former assistant U.S. attorney has been appointed to help with Brooks’ defense. Barnes, who is representing Brooks for free, had asked a federal judge to appoint an attorney to help as it has been decades since Barnes has argued a federal criminal case.
While federal prosecutors objected, U.S. Magistrate Alan Baverman ordered the government to provide the additional legal help. Tom Hawker, whom Barnes called a “fine, fine fellow,” is now working for Brooks.