DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson is the subject of an ethics complaint alleging misuse of his county-issued credit card.
The complaint filed May 27 alleges that Johnson “systematically and consistently” used his county credit card, referred to as purchasing cards (P-cards), for his “own personal benefit and contrary to the intended purpose” of the cards.
“Everything I did was for a public purpose,” Johnson said June 2.
Whether the ethics board finds something “worthy of being scrutinized is part of the process,” Johnson said. “[I will] let everything take its due course.
“I just think it part of the process that citizens have, and I will get an opportunity to go before the ethics folks,” Johnson said.
Johnson confirmed that he has been contacted by the FBI which has reportedly opened a probe into P-card use by DeKalb County officials.
The recent ethics complaints, filed by Rhea Johnson of Decatur, allege that Larry Johnson and Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton “systematically and consistently” used their county credit cards, for their “own personal benefit and contrary to the intended purpose.”
In the complaint, Rhea Johnson said, “It is my understanding that this P-card should not have been used for any personal uses regardless of the purchaser’s intent to repay any sums charged.”
The P-card charges highlighted in the ethics complaint against Larry Johnson include $10,000 to Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center.
Addressing the charges to the Porter Sanford Center, Commissioner Johnson said, “Those are for programming.”
For more than two years, Larry Johnson said, he has been donating funds from his budget to aid the arts at the Porter Sanford Center because the county has cut funding for the arts.
“The funding for the arts has been very limited during the recession. It was very tight,” Larry Johnson said.
“It’s basically to help [the center] with programming and things that they need at that center,” he said about the P-card donations. “That’s one of the cultural attractions that we have that help us with economic development in District 3.”
The funding is used for programming such as “quality productions and dance recitals,” Larry Johnson said. “The funding is for various things…that impacts the taxpayers of our area. It can help anybody, so it’s not specifically targeted for me. It’s just helping make sure we have performances and things in our community.
“I think that’s a worthy thing,” he said. “It’s a county-owned building [and] it’s subsidized by the county.”
The P-card donations are “what I would consider an intergovernmental transfer or just part of subsidizing and helping the arts out in our county. So it was for a public purpose,” Larry Johnson said. “It’s part of my budget, so I thought it was an opportunity to help the arts in our community.”
In an email, Johnson’s office stated that he has come under budget for the past three years, by $46,000 in 2011; $51,000 in 2012; and $29,000 in 2013. Those were the years that he performed “funding transfers” to the Porter Sanford Center.
Unlike other commissioners, Johnson said all of the donations he made with his P-card were for county projects.
“I can only speak for me,” the commissioner said. “The Porter Sanford Center is county-owned. I wanted to fund something that the county is already part of, that’s approved, that’s in our community, that taxpayers are already behind. That’s what I thought was a good use for a public purpose.
“That’s why I did what I did in that whole process,” he said. “I can’t speak for another commissioner because I don’t know what their intent was.”
Other charges highlighted in the ethics complaint include:
• $578.25 for Suburban Rental, a tool and party rental store, in July 2013. Commissioner Johnson said this was used to rent tables and chairs for exhibits for his annual childhood obesity event.
• $1,935 to Customink Tshirts in August 2013. This money was used for purchase participants’ T-shirts for a Let’s Move, DeKalb event.
• $363.78 at Brookstone in February 2013 for a portable LCD projector. “Remember, we have six commissioners and one projector,” Larry Johnson said.
According to Johnson’s P-card records obtained by an Open Records Request, he spent nearly $27,000 between Jan. 1, 2013, and April 1, 2014. Among the charges were $2,891 in hotel expenses; $2,886 in airplane expenses; $1,277 to cater two events; and $142 for floral arrangements for two funerals.
Commissioner Johnson said he welcomes the increased P-card oversight recently started by interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May.
“We all need that,” Johnson said. “We all need to be held accountable.”
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