Tuesday, September 30th, 2014
Half-True
Jones
Jeff Mann has an ethics complaint against him alleging he used county workers for campaign work, which is an indictable offense.

Vernon Jones on Thursday, July 10th, 2014 in an Atlanta Press Club debate

Ethics complaint doesn't equal wrongdoing

Vernon Jones, right, makes a point during a recent debate

DeKalb County has more than its share of alleged misdeeds by elected officials.

Ethics complaints are pending against all six sitting DeKalb County commissioners and interim CEO Lee May.

Suspended CEO Burrell Ellis is slated to go on trial in September to face felony charges he shook down county vendors for campaign contributions.

Amid that backdrop, Vernon Jones, the former county CEO, is complaining that interim Sheriff Jeff Mann faces his own integrity problems.

The pair traded several such attacks at a recent Atlanta Press Club debate, which airs at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

One volley from Jones drew a direct line between ongoing conduct questions and Mann: "His senior executives, and he himself, have ethics complaints against them (that) they are using county employees to campaign during county time. That’s an indictable offense."

Given the winner of the runoff race Tuesday will serve out former Sheriff Tom Brown’s term through 2016, the AJC Truth-O-Meter jumped quickly.

First, know that Mann protested in the debate that he knew of no pending ethics complaints against him. He also denied any wrongdoing.

So has Jones, after a special grand jury last year recommended that he be investigated on allegations of bid rigging during his eight years as CEO.

The question of an ethics complaint, though, is easy to answer because DeKalb has a Board of Ethics.

State law grants the board the power to examine complaints that elected officials or county workers have violated the code of ethics – and remove them from office or fire them if allegations are deemed flagrant enough.

DeKalb reinvigorated the board last year, amid the ongoing scandals, but the body has yet to take such drastic action on any of 18 pending complaints.

County records show two of those complaints relate to Mann. On June 25, the clerk to the County Commission forwarded both complaints from Rhonda Taylor, a former Sheriff’s Department employee, to the ethics board’s attorney.

Taylor complains that Mann forced her to work on his campaign and that the department’s human resources director, Xernia Fortson, abused her during that work.

Similar allegations surfaced last month, but no ethics complaints were filed in that case. At the time, Mann released an email he sent in March to the department. It reads in part that working on campaigns at work is prohibited.

The ethics board attorney, and the board itself, have yet to review Taylor’s complaints, Chairman John Ernst said. That’s because the board last met June 24, the day before her complaints were filed.

Procedure calls for the board attorney to review complaints for presentation to the board during meetings, to decide whether the body has jurisdiction to investigate and act.

In the sheriff’s case, that jurisdiction is in doubt. The board is given authority over elected commissioners, the CEO and workers, as well as appointed county board members.

But it is specifically excluded from oversight over the district attorney, solicitor and most court officials, such as judges and clerks from State and Superior Court.

The question is whether the sheriff – like the DA and judges, an elected office enshrined in the state Constitution – falls in the first or second category.

"The (board) attorney is expected to tell us at our meeting if we have jurisdiction," Ernst said.

Only if the board has and accepts jurisdiction at that session, scheduled for Aug. 14, would the board send Mann and Fortson notice that it plans to investigate.

The question of an indictment is a criminal matter that would fall to the DA’s office, not the ethics board, to pursue.

District Attorney Robert James would not comment on whether his office is looking into Taylor’s allegations.

It’s worth noting that James persuaded a grand jury to indict Ellis last year on similar charges, of having county employees do campaign work on taxpayer time.

Far more clear is the fact that at least one ethics complaint has been lodged against Mann, as Jones claims.

Anyone can file a complaint against most elected officials and county workers in DeKalb, though.

There is real uncertainty about whether the county’s Board of Ethics has jurisdiction over the constitutionally elected sheriff.

So while the statement contains a lot of literal truth, it lacks a good deal of context to fully understand how ethics complaints work. We rate the claim Half True.