DeKalb ethics probe launched

2 elected officials could be removed, 2 staffers could be fired.

By April Hunt

The DeKalb County ethics board has officially launched investigations that could result in the removal of two elected officials and the firing of two county staffers later this year.

Under investigation are suspended CEO Burrell Ellis and County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, as well as suspended Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton and Ellis’ former secretary, Nina Hall.

The powerful panel has never exercised its removal or firing authority — uniquely granted in state law 20 years ago — but made it clear in its hourlong meeting Thursday night that it is taking its role in cleaning up the county’s scandal-ridden image seriously.

“We could have final hearings on some of this by fall,” said acting board chairman John Ernst. “We will focus on the facts and move these cases forward.”

Some say such swift action points to the board becoming an effective watchdog in a county that has been under a cloud since Ellis was indicted on political corruption charges last year.

The special grand jury whose probe helped lead to Ellis’ indictment recommended the county completely overhaul the panel in its report released last August. The report concluded DeKalb had failed to address ongoing allegations of self-dealing and cronyism that point to a culture of corruption.

Since then, members of the ethics board have pushed for more appointees and successfully lobbied for a 600 percent budget increase, to $118,000, to hire investigators to help with its work.

Thursday, the board’s first big action was to schedule preliminary hearings sometime in June on two outstanding complaints that date back to 2011. Outside investigators are helping with one case.

Gene Chapman, the advising attorney for the ethics board, has yet to decide if he also will hire outside help with investigations into the elected officials and high-level staffers. But the board, knowing the public is watching, has given him the ability to hire them as needed.

“It has apparently generated a lot of interest in the ethics board, and for that I am grateful,” Viola Davis, a resident who filed complaints against Walton and Hall, said of the pending cases. “This is a good learning experience for us, so we know how to get the change the taxpayers and voters are demanding.”

The ethics complaint against Ellis asks that he be removed from office based on the allegations of theft and conspiracy in the 14-count indictment against him.

A separate complaint asks Boyer also be removed from office, citing a March investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that found she rang up thousands of dollars in personal charges on her county-issued Visa card. She reimbursed most of the money within months, but the usage, and that by chief of staff Bob Lundsten, appears to have violated county policy.

The cases against Walton and Hall — whose sworn court testimony indicated they were involved in activities that led to the corruption case against Ellis — could result in their firings. Interim CEO Lee May has suspended the pair, with pay, until the court case is settled.

Attorneys for Boyer and Lundsten have filed motions with the ethics board to dismiss those complaints by arguing the board does not have jurisdiction over the matter.

The board declined to let the attorneys make their cases Thursday, agreeing with Chapman that the ethics board does have jurisdiction.

In all of those cases, the board will formally request responses from those facing complaints. Chapman will review those responses and could either pursue further investigation or stop the process. He will update the board on which action he takes at its next meeting, a special session to be held in mid June.

The cases that move forward would likely take up at least two additional meetings after June: one for a preliminary hearing to decide on a formal case, and one for a full hearing that allows for arguments from both sides.

The board must first hold hearings on those outstanding cases, and may need to schedule more special-called sessions to clear its backlog. It holds regular quarterly meetings in August and November.