AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Despite multiple violations, Cleta Winslow won't be prosecuted

In three elections in a row, Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has been caught using taxpayer money to boost her campaign.

Over and over, she tapped her district office funds to promote herself to voters. In one case she spent more than $5,000 printing and distributing a campaign newsletter. Later, she spent $390 busing seniors to a campaign event. And she paid homeless people $5 per hour to wear her T-shirts while picking up trash and handing out campaign fliers. You can read what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered about her misspending, in a 2014 investigation, here. And here.

If willfully done, routing the public's money to a campaign is a misdemeanor under Georgia law. But don't expect Winslow to receive the same treatment as someone who runs a stop sign.

Fulton County Solicitor General Carmen Smith, whose office handles misdemeanors, said she's not looking into the Winslow case because no one has referred it to her.

Theoretically she could, of her own accord, dispatch a staffer to review the Atlanta Ethics Board's files on Winslow. But that wouldn't be due process, or fair, Smith said.

“Why would I selectively decide, on my own, to look at this case, any more than the hundreds of other cases that the Ethics Board and commissioners look at?" the solicitor general said. "Why am I picking out this particular person? I can’t engage in selective prosecution."

Smith said for her to step in, someone would have to swear out a warrant, and if a judge found probable cause for charges, the case would be bound over to State Court.

Or the Ethics Board could forward the case to her, Smith said. Ethics Officer Nina Hickson has said she's not sending her files to prosecutors because, with Winslow's paperwork in disarray and numerous emails deleted, she couldn't definitively prove Winslow intended to spend office money on campaigning. But an ex-DeKalb County District Attorney told the AJC that committing an infraction several times back to back might be enough to show intent.

The ethics officer said if anyone from law enforcement wants to look over her work, she'll oblige.

Such a review would have to be initiated the other way around, Smith said.

“I wouldn’t go after (Winslow) any more than I would go after the governor for the infractions in which he was penalized," Smith said. "Unless somebody sent it to me to say, 'Please look at this. We have this particular evidence for possible prosecution as a misdemeanor.'

"Why would I go after her?" Smith said. "Because she’s an African-American female? I mean, why?”

The Ethics Board, which can fine officials up to $1,000 per infraction, has proposed that Winslow pay $3,000 for her latest round of misspending. It's the fourth time Winslow has been deemed in violation of city code by using public money to campaign. The board fined her $2,000 in 2013, fined her $1,500 in 2010 and settled a case without fining her in 2006.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office also has jurisdiction over misdemeanors, would not talk about Winslow's ethics case with the AJC.


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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.