With the help of public funds, two of DeKalb’s top elected officials gave 900 members of one of politics’ most coveted voting blocs a night to remember.
The hosts, District Attorney Robert James and now-acting county CEO Lee May, personally greeted senior citizens who arrived by the busload at Hyatt Regency Atlanta’s Centennial Ballroom. Guests dined and danced for free to a seven-member band that played Motown classics late into the night.
The Senior Ball and Expo performed a public service, James said. It taught seniors to spot elder abuse and keep healthy.
“I count it as one of the best things I’ve ever done in public office,” he said.
But critics warn that the June event also reveals how state law allows sheriffs and district attorneys to use a special pot of public dollars for things that bear an uncanny resemblance to politicking.
“As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions," said William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “We’re hearing of a lot of things being funded with this money that may be good things to do, but not necessarily proper.”
The ball is now also an issue in the criminal case against suspended county CEO Burrell Ellis. In a motion filed in DeKalb superior court last week, Ellis called the ball a “thinly veiled formal political affair,” and complained James and May used county employees to ask DeKalb contractors for sponsorships.
Ellis has been indicted on allegations that he ordered county employees to push DeKalb contractors to contribute to his reelection campaign and told staffers to stop doing business with companies that did not pay up. If his actions were illegal, he now argues, then James and May are guilty of the same thing with the Senior Ball.
The DeKalb DA’s contribution of $21,000 to the $47,000, black-tie event came from his office’s share of money and property that law enforcement confiscated from criminal suspects. State forfeiture law stipulates that the money be used for “any official law enforcement purpose,” although the rules say little about what this means.
Sponsors paid for remaining costs.
James says his Senior Ball was not a political event, and that the spending strips profits from drug dealers and gives it back to the communities they hurt. Seniors played games and watched presentations that taught them about elder abuse, learned about healthy cooking and visited information booths on a variety of topics.
The event was also billed as a fundraiser for a group that helps victims of elder abuse. It raised $2,800 for them.
“It’s a wonderful event,” he said. “And if you read the code section as it’s currently constituted, it’s not a violation of law.”
Elected officials using public funds to burnish their reputations is a time-honored political tradition. They have long budgeted tax dollars to publish newsletters that list their accomplishments, or issue press releases that attach their names to popular events.
“Elected officials do whatever they can within the limit of ethics laws to advertise what they’re doing,” said Kennesaw State political science professor Kerwin Swint. “It’s very common.”
But state forfeiture funds are unique. They are not subject to the checks and balances of a governing body’s annual budget process. And while the law requires annual filings about this spending to be posted on a University of Georgia website, there is no penalty if agencies don’t comply.
This means that sheriffs and district attorneys have wide latitude to use these funds as they see fit. And to a politician hungry for support, a ballroom full of seniors is an all-you-can-eat buffet of registered voters.
That said, much of the state forfeiture funds go to causes with a clear connection to fighting crime. In 2012, James gave $20,000 to the county’s rape crisis center and $1,500 to the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, DA spending figures show.
Still, none of James’ expenses quite compares to his senior expo and ball, which was brought to DeKalb residents ages 60 and up this year by top sponsors Concentra and the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority.
The event is so popular that seniors angle for tickets months in advance. This year, some followed James around a senior center begging for tickets, he said.
At last year’s Senior Ball, guests won prizes including iPod Nanos, movie passes, and gift certificates that were donated by businesses. The DA’s office footed about $15,000 of the bill that year, spending records show.
And in 2011, about 320 seniors dined, danced and learned about safety at DeKalb Technical College’s conference center. It cost the DA’s office at least $15,000.
This spending stands in contrast to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s annual Forever Young Ball, which was free to some 4,500 city seniors this year. Sponsors paid the entire $140,000 bill, a city spokesman said.
Other DAs have used state forfeiture funds on goodwill events.
Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard used tens of thousands of state forfeiture funds to buy tickets to gala fundraisers.
And in 2008, James’ predecessor Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming spent more than $25,000 on a mentoring session and luncheon that paired high-achieving girls with professional women at the Emory Conference Center Hotel.
The office ordered $1,500 worth of custom lapel pins for the one-day event. The tables were decorated with $1,350 worth of flowers. Only about half the guests were girls, spending records state.
Javoyne Hicks White, Keyes Fleming’s chief district attorney at the time, said the event helped fight crime because guests engaged in “legal and promotional training.”
“It targeted middle school girls — not just those at risk. A lot of the times it’s not at-risk kids who end up in juvenile court,” Hicks White said.
Law may be revised
Creators of state forfeiture law intended the money be spent on things like bullet-proof vests and training that directly impact fighting crime, said State Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican. He tried unsuccessfully to tighten spending rules and address civil rights concerns during the spring legislative session.
Government watchdogs complain that existing law encourages agencies to police for profit and note that agencies can keep the money even if suspects aren’t charged with a crime. Georgia law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of property each year, and some have come to rely on it to help fund their budgets.
After the AJC reported on Howard’s spending in June, Gov. Nathan Deal announced his interest in changing the law. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, appointed a working group, which is set to propose legislation in December.
It will likely draw from rules on money forfeited under federal law, Willard said. Those rules bar spending that gives the appearance of extravagance or impropriety.
James stresses he spent prudently. For the 2013 ball, he kept costs to $20 per person with sponsorships from Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, Cigna and others. Vendors do not make sales pitches to seniors, he said.
A band, seated dinner and ballroom are not extravagant, James said. They’re essential. Few seniors would show up without them.
“It’s actually a very good bang for the buck. It looks shiny because it is shiny. And I should give the best that I can,” James said.
Guests interviewed by The AJC saw no signs of campaigning, voter registration drives, or political messages.
It’s one of the few events that addresses the needs of the county’s growing senior population, said Elizabeth Daniel, who attended the ball with about 25 members of her senior group from Ray of Hope Christian Church in South DeKalb.
Seniors strolled information booths and watched lectures about high sodium food, emergency preparedness, scammers, and Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. Daniel left the ball with a bag full of pamphlets, including a recipe for a fruity parfait.
“I’m not sure how they came up with the idea but I am so glad that they did,” Daniel said. “I believe they really recognize us, and we are a forgotten group of people.”
The hosts are such nice men, Daniel said.
“Between the two of them, Robert James and Commissioner May, they came in and you feel like you’ve known them all of your life,” she said.
Every year, Georgia law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of cash, cars and other property. To find out what agencies take and how they use it, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution throughout this year has analyzed thousands of pages of documents obtained under open records laws. In previous stories, the AJC revealed weaknesses in the state forfeiture law that open the door for abuse. The AJC also detailed questionable spending by Georgia agencies, including tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Fulton County district attorney on office awards galas, a private movie screening and tickets to sports games. The coverage prompted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to conduct an independent review of spending by the Fulton DA. A growing number of elected officials have also said they will push to tighten rules on state civil forfeiture funds and force more transparency.