The Ethics of Vernon Jones

Rep. Howard Mosby speaks to the DeKalb house legislative delegation, with Rep. Vernon Jones seated behind.

Vernon Jones’ return to the capitol didn’t have a political honeymoon so much as it had an armistice.

Jones sent a signal of sorts at the inauguration of Michael Thurmond. Present for the festivities was Sharon Barnes-Sutton, who had just lost her seat to Steve Bradshaw, becoming the first commissioner in two decades to lose a race in a primary challenge. Sutton remains festooned with decorative criminal investigations and ethics complaints.

Jones approached her, knelt at her feet, and kissed her hand.

Jones has ever since then been galloping through the halls and committee meetings of the legislature as a state representative once again for the southeast corner of DeKalb and part of Rockdale. The word most frequently used is “divisive,” though unprintable other language has been common.

He seems to be having fun. Almost no one else is.

Jones — in between self-serving monologues in committee hearings about how much good he did for DeKalb as its CEO — has become the prime critic of ethics legislation binding the county he once led. His confrontations over the new ethics board has divided the county delegation almost completely along racial lines, which alarms most of them, black and white.

Yesterday, Jones offered a surreal attack, filing an ethics complaint against the county’s ethics officer herself. Jones argues in a letter to the ethics board that Stacy Kalberman “has violated the very law she is entrusted to enforce” by making public comments about the state of ethics legislation.

The irony is that Jones does not believe the ethics board itself is constitutional as it stands.

And — reason save me for admitting this aloud — Jones may be right. 

The legislation enabling the new ethics board — which was approved in referendum by 92 percent of DeKalb’s voters — may be legally flawed. A serious question about the constitutionality of allowing nongovernmental organizations to appoint members to a government body is under consideration in court, today. It’s part of the legal defense for former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton over longstanding ethics charges.

Jones famously dodges the press. And he has steadfastly refused to present legislation he claims to have drafted that would advance his view of the ethics board.

But he has been responding through social media to some critics. In a recent post to Holcomb’s page, Jones attempted to clarify his position.

Jones described the 2015 legislation as a rush job that ignored serious legal questions. “(W)hen this legislation was being drafted in 2015, legislative counsel cautioned some of the legislators regarding this same issue and similar legislation with private organizations making similar appointments,” he wrote. “DeKalb needs a comprehensive, thoughtful, and rational Ethics legislation overhaul that protects the innocent and holds the guilty accountable. Likewise, the members of the Ethics Board need to be subject to the same laws that they enforce and execute as no one is above or beneath the law.”

Jones said he believes Kalberman “has consistently violated the spirit and the letter of the law with her involvement in getting legislative changes and amendments and making public media comments criticizing DeKalb legislators for not going along with her agenda.”

Jones raises a question about the ethics officer having the authority to both investigate ethics charges and then to judge those charges. “Kalberman currently serves as investigator, judge, jury and executioner in violation of basic due process and constitutional separation of powers,” he wrote. “In addition, the current legislation provides no real remedy for recusal of biased or conflicted out Board members and any temporary replacement; nor any sanctions for those who file frivolous and politically motivated ethics complaints with no basis in fact or law.”

The argument holds just enough water to give members of the DeKalb delegation pause. It is reasonable on its face. But … it is easy to view it as the mask hiding an intent to weaken oversight in a county that remains fraught with corruption.

If DeKalb Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson decides that the board is unconstitutional, Barnes-Sutton’s case goes away … as does the goodwill of the voters who expected better. The question is what to do about that.

Roughly half the delegation wants the legislature to wait and see how Jackson resolves the case. The other half want a legislative fix now, anticipating Jackson’s ruling while still in session, to allow for changes to be presented to voters as soon as possible.

Legislation is wending its way through the state house to change the appointment process, so that the DeKalb Bar Association, the chamber of commerce and other private entities would be replaced as appointers. Rep. Scott Holcomb has one set of bills to fix it. A separate senate bill crossed over and will ostensibly cover the same ground.

The seven-member policy committee of the DeKalb delegation reviewed Holcomb’s bill this week, and split on presenting it for a vote. Three supported it — Rep. Karla Drenner, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, and Holcomb himself. Three voted against it — Rep. Karen Bennett, Rep. Coach Williams (my rep) … and Jones.

The chairwoman, Rep. Pam Stephenson, refused to vote, viewing the racial split in the delegation as intolerable and unwilling to perpetuate it.

 

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