Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has asked for a review of whether Commissioner John Heard’s 2010 appointment of his wife, Debbie, to the county’s Family and Children Services Board was a conflict of interest.
Nash made the request to the county’s Law Department on Friday, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked whether the appointment was appropriate. Members of that board receive an $85 monthly per diem — $15 per month from the state and $70 per month from the county — according to the county website.
John Heard made the appointment shortly after being elected to the commission. He said he chose his wife because she formerly worked for the state Division of Family and Children Services and is “very concerned about their local operations.”
“She’s familiar with the DFCS process,” Heard said of his wife.
When initially asked about Debbie Heard’s appointment to the board, Nash said she was “not aware of a prohibition on the appointment of family members of commissioners to the DFCS Board.” She also said she was “unaware of there being compensation associated with serving on this board.”
Nash asked for the review after being told by the AJC about the monthly per diem.
The locally appointed boards in each of Georgia’s counties advise county government departments on administering public assistance.
The newspaper asked about Heard’s appointment after reporting last week that the commissioner was named in a lawsuit that accuses him of attempting to shake down a property owner bidding on a contact to provide local office space for the state Division of Family and Children Services.
The lawsuit alleges that Heard told Fred Hand III, the owner of a property on Grayson Highway, that he could deliver the contract if Hand paid him $240,000 a year over 15 years.
Heard called that a “lie” and said he tried to buy Hand’s property so he could submit a proposal to the state. The commissioner eventually submitted a proposal with another property — which he says was not a conflict of interest because the county would not be involved in awarding the contract.
The newspaper learned of the appointment in researching a story about the lawsuit. The local Family and Children Services Board had no input in awarding the state contract for office space.
William Perry, executive director of the citizen watchdog organization Common Cause Georgia, said Debbie Heard’s appointment is a conflict of interest for the commissioner, even if it violated no law or guideline.
“If nothing else, it makes the public roll their eyes and adds to mistrust,” he said. “A much better decision could have been made.”
More than 200,000 people live in Gwinnett County’s District 4, which Heard represents. The only qualifications for five of the board members is that they be residents of Gwinnett County and that they are not elected officials. In addition, there are two other board members — a school counselor and a police officer responsible for investigating child abuse.
Heard acknowledged that “there probably are a lot of other qualified people” who could have filled the post.
“But finding people to do what is essentially volunteer work for the county is hard, hard, hard,” Heard said.