The top Democrats in the state House and Senate, along with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, will decide whether state Rep. Tyrone Brooks should remain in office while under federal indictment, Gov. Nathan Deal said Friday.
Deal named Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, to the three-member panel. The state constitution calls for a committee to decide whether the charges against Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat, make him unfit for office.
“It’s one of those cases where you absolutely have to take politics out of the equation and do what you think is the right thing and deal with that at a later date,” Henson said. “If you do that, you come out a lot better than looking at politics.”
Brooks is charged with 30 counts of wire fraud, tax fraud and mail fraud. Federal prosecutors allege Brooks raised money for two charities but used much of it for personal expenses. Brooks’ attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, has said his client is innocent but has had poor accounting practices.
Brooks was in Alabama on a civil rights tour Friday and deferred questions to Barnes. Efforts to reach Barnes were unsuccessful.
The panel has 14 days to issue a written report; its decision is final.
If suspended, Brooks would continue to receive his legislative pay and benefits but could not act in an official capacity. The suspension would be lifted if Brooks is not convicted.
Olens, the only Republican on the panel, said his charge is clear.
“I will consider only whether the indictment relates to and adversely affects Rep. Brooks’ administration of the office and, if so, whether the rights and interests of the public are adversely affected,” he said.
Abrams, who serves with Brooks in the House, agreed the special panel must not approach their job in a partisan manner.
“The point is to evaluate whether or not Rep. Brooks has done something that will impede his ability to represent his constituents,” Abrams said. “That means we have to take into consideration past precedent. He’s not the first person to face this issue.”
The process has been used on several occasions. In 2002, then-Sen. Van Streat, D-Nichols, was suspended after he was indicted on charges of accepting money to influence the transfer of a convicted murderer. In 1999, Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, was suspended after she was indicted on charges that she used her office of personal gain.
Abrams’ sister, Leslie, is a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, but Rep. Abrams said that poses no conflict for her.
“Leslie is not at all involved in this case,” she said. “This is about whether or not the indictment affects his ability to do his job, not whether the U.S. Attorney’s office is the source of the indictment.”
While Henson and Abrams vow to keep politics out of the process, there will be political ramifications to the decision, said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State University political scientist and former top aide to long-time House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen.
Deal, Anthony said, insulated Republicans from criticism by appointing two Democrats.
“It prevents them from being attacked as making a partisan decision and also puts the Democrats in a position where no matter what they say, they’re going to have to think about the ramifications,” he said. “It’s a pretty astute political move.”