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DeKalb Ethics Board will investigate Johnson, Barnes Sutton purchases

Ken Watts | 6/27/2014, 6 a.m.

Ethics charges against DeKalb Commissioners Larry Johnson and Sharon Barnes Sutton and her chief of staff, Judy Brownlee, will advance, the DeKalb Ethics Board ruled this week.

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Larry Johnson

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Sharon Barnes Sutton

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Elaine Boyer

The seven-member board voted unanimously at its June 24 meeting to move ahead with an investigation of the complaints about abuses of the county’s purchasing cards filed by Rhea [pronounced Ray] Johnson, a Decatur resident, and Viola Davis, president of Stone Mountain-based Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter Organization.

Both complaints said the commissioners and Brownlee used taxpayer-funded Visa purchasing cards for personal expenses.

In his complaint, Rhea Johnson, no relation to the commissioner, said Larry Johnson, who represents District 3 and is the Board of Commissioners’ presiding officer, had total purchases exceeding $57,000 since 2011.

In her complaint filed May 30, Davis said Barnes Sutton and Brownlee have spent $75,000 since 2011.

The new complaints against Barnes Sutton and Johnson were filed after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in March of spending by District 1 Commissioner Elaine Boyer and her chief of staff Bob Lundsten.

Boyer, the county’s longest-serving commissioner with 20 years on the board, is being investigated for abuse of her county-issued P-card. The complaint charges that she made 52 personal charges between 2011 and 2013 totaling $12,000 for meals, rental cars, and multiple airline tickets to a Colorado ski resort.

Boyer apologized to residents on March 25 for the expenses and said that she had repaid two-thirds of the purchases and paid back $4,083 this year.

After the vote, Davis said she was very happy that the Ethics Board decided to move forward with the expanded investigation.

“Using taxpayer money for personal purchases is inexcusable and Barnes Sutton and Brownlee have a pattern of doing that over the years,” Davis said.

Her complaint was based on AJC reports that Barnes Sutton and Brownlee spent money at stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Office Depot and Walmart.

The Ethics Board said that its first step will be to clarify the ethical boundaries for P-card use by county officials.

John Ernst, the board’s chairman, said members will meet in July for a work session that will help them decide when P-card spending is not appropriate.

“We’ll be setting guidelines on how to proceed in these cases,” he said. “There were so many complaints of basically the same nature, and we needed to have a real good understanding of this issue.”

If the board concludes that the commissioners violated ethics rules, it could levy punishments ranging from reprimands to removal from office.

Both Johnson and Barnes Sutton have denied wrongdoing.

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Mawuli Mel Davis, an attorney for Commissioner Larry Johnson, gave the Ethics Board a notebook detailing Johnson’s P-card purchases.

Johnson’s attorney, Mawuli Mel Davis of the Decatur-based Davis Bozeman Law Firm, said he gave the Ethics Board a notebook detailing each of Johnson’s P-card purchases. The notebook includes $12,000 in donations between 2011 and 2013 to help fund youth programs at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center.

“All of the purchases were for DeKalb County business and in the interest of DeKalb citizens,” Davis told CrossRoadsNews at the Ethics Board meeting. “It’s our position that the board, after a review of the documents, should dismiss the ethics complaint because they are baseless claims.”

Quinton Washington, attorney for Barnes Sutton and Brownlee, said all of their purchases can be explained.

“Ms. Barnes Sutton has an annual office budget of $270,000. She and Ms. Brownlee spent about $75,000 over three years serving a constituency of 150,000 people. A closer examination will show that purchases at stores mentioned in the AJC report were appropriate and were for community events in the commissioner’s district.”

In other business, the Board of Ethics decided to wait until suspended CEO Burrell Ellis’ trial concludes before considering the ethics complaint against him filed by Rhea Johnson. Ellis faces ethics complaints and criminal charges based on allegations that he pressured county vendors for campaign contributions. His criminal case will go to trial on Sept. 8 in DeKalb Superior Court.

The board also voted to seek more information before acting on the Unhappy Taxpayer’s complaint against suspended Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton and suspended Project Manager Nina Hall of Watershed Management. The complaint alleges that Walton, an unindicted co-conspirator and key witness in the case against Ellis, accepted gifts from county vendors and funneled cash to Hall, who served on several selection committees for county projects.