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            Board of Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman speaks the DeKalb Board of Ethics meeting Tuesday, August 1, 2017. (Rebecca Breyer)
            Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
            Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

            Clock ticking on DeKalb County ethics legislation

            Judge, jury and executioner.

            That’s how some legislators and local officials from DeKalb County describe Stacey Kalberman these days. Her position — ethics officer — is one that involves investigating complaints brought against DeKalb employees and officials and, in more functional times, presenting the subsequent findings to the county ethics board.

            And it’s still at the heart of the contentious fight over DeKalb’s ethics laws.

            State lawmakers from DeKalb are continuing that fight this legislative session, which is rapidly approaching its scheduled end date in early April. The discussions are ostensibly about finding a way to get the actual ethics board back up and running, restoring oversight in a county that has a history of needing it. The board has been sidelined since late 2018 thanks to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling.

            But Kalberman, and that label, loom large.

            “To say that I’m judge, jury and executioner,” Kalberman said this week, “has always been patently false.”

            State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver agrees.

            While some of her colleagues in DeKalb’s legislative delegation are continuing last year’s efforts to dramatically overhaul the county ethics program, Oliver is in the camp that just wants to fix the relatively minor issue that forced the ethics board into a holding pattern.

            “I don’t believe that there’s much substance to that allegation,” Oliver said. “It’s just a strategy, to make an argument to stop progress.”

            February 18, 五福彩821ccapp - Atlanta - Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D - Decatur, gives a thumbs up after conferring with house speaker David Ralston as the General Assembly returned for the 14th legislative day. Bob Andres / robert.andres@五福彩821ccapp
            Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

            ‘More than one person’

            To hear some tell it, the ethics officer role gives an unusual amount of power to one individual.

            “Let’s take the name Stacey out,” state Rep. Vernon Jones, a longtime Kalberman detractor, said recently. “How can the ethics officer write a complaint, investigate a complaint and determine what the punishment’s gonna be?”

            While there are valid arguments to be made on both sides of the larger ethics issue, that’s not exactly how it works.

            Under the law, complaints filed by DeKalb residents or tips submitted via an anonymous hotline are investigated by the ethics officer. The ethics officer then makes a recommendation to the ethics board about whether or not there is enough probable cause — facts suggesting there may be substance to the complaint — to continue.

            The ethics officer’s recommendation is also sent to the subject of the complaint, who is permitted to submit any objections in writing. The ethics board then holds a public hearing in which it has the power to determine if probable cause exists.

            If it doesn’t, the ethics board can dismiss the complaint. If it does, the board calls another more formal hearing.

            That hearing functions largely like any court case, with evidence and witnesses provided by both sides. The final decision on the merits of the case rests with the ethics board, though defendants have the option of appealing to DeKalb County Superior Court.

            “She reports to a board,” County Commissioner Nancy Jester said. “There’s obviously a lot more than one person that looks at these things.”

            During Kalberman’s tenure, the vast majority of ethics complaints have been dismissed and only two cases have ever gone to a formal hearing. There are currently eight claims against elected officials that are pending, including two cases involving former Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

            It was a lawsuit by Barnes Sutton — who is currently awaiting trial on federal bribery and extortion charges — that neutered the ethics board and prompted the current fight at the Capitol. As part of the case, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the way four of the seven ethics board members were appointed was unconstitutional.

            All board members must now be appointed by public officials and not private entities.

            Artist’s rendering shows Sharon Barnes Sutton, the former DeKalb County commissioner, in federal court on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Barnes Sutton pleaded not guilty to two counts of extortion and federal charges that she took at least one bribe from a company trying to do business with the county. Artist Rendering by Richard Miller
            Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

            Earlier this year, Jester and the commission adopted a resolution asking the legislature to adopt a “clean fix” to the ethics bill, making the necessary changes to the appointment process and otherwise leaving the ordinance alone.

            The resolution passed 5-2. The no votes came from commissioners Larry Johnson and Mereda Davis Johnson.

            Both said they support ethics oversight. But Johnson, who was the board’s presiding officer when the existing ethics ordinance was passed in 2015, said it’s always worth reviewing policies and making sure “we have the proper checks and balances in place.” He also said he’s irked that commissioners haven’t been asked to directly participate in the current discussions at the Capitol.

            Davis Johnson, meanwhile, has adopted the “judge, jury and executioner” line.

            “We have rights too,” Davis Johnson said. “And it should be fair, and the process should not be exercised by just one person. It should go through different channels.”

            ‘A path to pass no relief’

            State Rep. Viola Davis is the chairwoman of the DeKalb House delegation’s ethics committee, which is tasked with vetting ethics-related legislation. She said this week she’s very optimistic that there will be a resolution when the session ends in about three weeks.

            She may be the only one.

            The session started with a bill from Rep. Matthew Wilson that fixed the ethics board appointment process and nothing else. Davis has since submitted her own bill, addressing other issues like a recusal process for ethics board members with conflicts of interest.

            The additions thus far seem to be uncontroversial.

            February 20, 五福彩821ccapp - Atlanta - Rep. Vernon Jones, D - Lithonia, confers with a colleague as the General Assembly returned for the 16th legislative day. Bob Andres / robert.andres@五福彩821ccapp
            Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

            Rep. Jones, meanwhile, said he still plans to submit his own bill. While a copy has not been provided, it would likely seek to wrest power from the ethics officer position. A similar effort that Jones helped spearhead last year was actually adopted by his fellow lawmakers — then shot down by DeKalb voters in a November referendum.

            “It’s the structure, it’s the process that’s the problem,” Jones said. “The process is not ethical. It’s not transparent and it’s not justice.”

            Anything that’s agreed upon among DeKalb’s House members would still have to be sent to the Senate delegation for approval.

            “I’m discouraged at this point,” Rep. Oliver said. “I’m nervous that we are on a path to pass no relief.”

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