Accused politicians try to undermine ethics oversight in Georgia

Two politicians accused of misconduct in office are challenging whether local ethics boards should even exist, arguing that elected officials are already held accountable by voters and the court system.

Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter and ex-DeKalb County Commission Sharon Barnes Sutton say in separate lawsuits that county ethics agencies looking into their cases are acting like an unaccountable “prosecutor, judge and jury.”

They’ve already won an initial battle. A judge dismantled the DeKalb Board of Ethics in April after Sutton, accused of misspending public money, filed a lawsuit that challenged the way the DeKalb Ethics Board was chosen. The DeKalb Board of Ethics appealed last month.

Hunter, who caused a firestorm by calling civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig,” echoed Sutton’s arguments in his pending lawsuit against the Gwinnett Board of Ethics.

Their cases might be ultimately decided by the Georgia Supreme Court.

In Hunter’s ethics case, his peers on the Gwinnett Commission are scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to publicly reprimand him for his comments, as recommended by the Gwinnett Board of Ethics.

MORE: Day of reckoning - or vindication - on tap in Gwinnett’s racist pig case

Allegations of wrongdoing should be settled either during elections or by the courts if there’s any illegal activity — not by citizen-run ethics boards, said Hunter’s attorney, Dwight Thomas.

Thomas, who also represents Sutton, wrote in a letter to a Gwinnett judge last month that the quasi-judicial ethics oversight process is akin to a “political lynching” used to smear the reputations of elected officials. He called that form of justice a “star chambered kangaroo posse hanging.”

“All of us should abide by the laws of this country,” Thomas said. “And if you don’t like those laws, change those laws.”

But supporters of ethics boards, which are common in cities and counties across the country, say the panels play a critical role in monitoring the behavior of elected officials.

Ethics boards investigate complaints about conflicts of interest, improper spending of public money and other infractions that fall short of criminal prosecution. Their primary power is to judge whether government employees’ actions are wrong and then issue reprimands.

“It’s important that you have an entity that would be able to expose or bring to light things that are going on,” said Robert Tatum, a member of the DeKalb Board of Ethics. “Those people who are against boards … are they saying they want no oversight? They want elected officials to operate carte blanche with impunity?”

The legal ground for challenging ethics board oversight is centered around the way they are chosen. In November 2015, voters overwhelmingly supported rebooting the DeKalb Board of Ethics in an effort to make it more independent. Strong public backing for ethical controls came after years of scandals in DeKalb, including government charge card abuses, a special grand jury investigation into corruption and criminal charges against elected officials.

The ballot measure put the power to appoint most Board of Ethics members in the hands of different community groups instead of county commissioners. But Sutton argued that all members of ethics boards must be chosen by elected officials because they represent the people.

In Gwinnett, ethics board members are chosen by the Gwinnett Bar Association, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the county district attorney, the Gwinnett Commission and the defendant in each case. In DeKalb, ethics board members are selected by the DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Leadership DeKalb, a consortium of six local colleges, two judges and state legislators.

Thomas’ arguments against outside appointments by community groups could end up having an affect on ethics boards across the state. Many ethics boards are chosen that way, but they haven’t been challenged in court.

Sutton said the DeKalb Board of Ethics’ power to sway public opinion with its judgments is unfair. She says her government spending was legitimate, but the allegations against her remain unresolved while her lawsuit is pending.

“I don’t believe we really need an Ethics Board. It can ruin your reputation and it affects elections,” said Sutton, who lost re-election last year. “The board acts like an executioner.”

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said ethics boards provide a “citizen check on the behavior of top officials” that’s not as hard as trying to organize a recall. Local recall elections in Georgia require 30 percent of registered voters to sign a petition.

The power of ethics boards comes from “bad publicity,” Bullock said. “You (would) have a more a serious challenge when you’re up for re-election.”

The chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Ethics that investigated Hunter, David Will, said the ethics process helps elected officials and the public know where to draw the line on unacceptable behavior.

“Ethics boards and ethics ordinances, if they work, give some people confidence that the man or woman on the street has some say,” Will said.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said ethics policies not only encourage responsible governance but also avoid the appearance of impropriety.

“Developing and maintaining the public trust requires more than avoiding illegal actions,” she said.

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