As the FBI and the county ethics board looks into how DeKalb County commissioners handle their budgets and county purchasing cards (P-cards), Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said she has been fiscally responsible.
“There has been no misuse, no overspending,” Sutton told The Champion on June 16 about the handling of her budget, which was $274,400 for 2013 and is $262,800 for 2014. “You can sensationalize the spending if you don’t look at all of the numbers.”
Sutton admitted that “there have been some receipts that have been lost,” but added she now has a plan in place to better save receipts and to record them much sooner.
One of the receipts that were missing when The Champion filed an Open Records Request was for a $239.97 purchase from Bed, Bath & Beyond in September 2013. Sutton’s P-Card log lists the purchase as a chair, but Sutton said, “I don’t know what chair that was. That’s a typo. I don’t know.”
Sutton recollected that she purchased a fan, office supplies and air freshener from the store for her office.
On Sept. 3, 2013, she also spent $1,465 at Office Depot to set up her home office. Although no receipt was provided to The Champion, Sutton said she purchased furniture, including a desk, printer table and side table.
“I was setting up my home office after all these years,” said Sutton, who began serving as a commissioner in 2009. “I was supposed to do that my first year, but I was using my own equipment. It was so old that it wouldn’t support today’s technology and software, so I…set up my home office.”
Since commissioners’ P-card usage has been under the public microscope, Sutton said she has learned that the county needs to “have clear policies that are applicable to the position of the person with the P-card.”
“One of the problems that we had was that policies were designed for employees of the CEO,” Sutton said. “What is appropriate for an employee who only maybe orders supplies in a department and maybe travels once every five years…is different from what an elected official does.”
Business trips are ‘invaluable’
Sutton’s summary of travel expenses for the past three years shows that her office spent $16,496 in 2011; $1,648 in 2012; and $6,431 in 2013.
In March 2013, Sutton spent $170 in baggage fees, $52 for taxis, $48 for meals and $1,276 for a hotel room during a trip to Washington, D.C., for the National Association of Counties (NACo) legislative conference. Such trips are invaluable, she said.
“That is where you get to get all of your legislative and policy training,” Sutton said. “If you do not do that, you’re not fully able to represent your constituents. You know nothing about the most current legislation that affects your population.”
During the same trip, Judy Brownlee, Sutton’s chief of staff who is also a member of NACo, had another hotel room with a $1,311 price tag. Sharing a room was not an option, Sutton said.
“I’m a 54-year-old woman,” Sutton said. “Why am I going to roommate with my staff? I don’t think anyone would ask the governor if he should share with his chief of staff. Would you ask Congressman Johnson if he should share with his chief of staff?”
Laundry charge ‘appropriate’
During that same trip, Sutton charged $47 for room service and another $43 for laundry.
“I didn’t have a washing machine in my room and something spilled on my clothes,” she said about the expense. “I didn’t think [taxpayers] would want me to represent them with clothes that were dirty.
“I think that’s an appropriate expense,” Sutton said. “If I had not been away working, it would not have been an issue. I would have put them in my washing machine and washed it myself or I would take it to the dry cleaners. I had no other option. They had the service available. To have them cleaned, I don’t think that there’s a problem with that.”
Wine charge was an ‘oversight’
A $61.72 receipt for a lunch meeting in July 2013 with first responders at Blue Ribbon Grill shows that two glasses of wine were purchased with Brownlee’s P-card.
“Normally when we have wine with a dinner, they are paid for separately. That must have been an oversight,” Sutton said about the lunch at Blue Ribbon Grill. “Normally whoever has the alcohol pays for the alcohol.”
From Jan. 1, 2013, to April 1, 2014, Sutton’s office spent $1,077 for lunch and dinner meetings at various restaurants. When asked how lunch meetings were more helpful than office meetings, she said, “It depends on the meeting and the time of day and the location…and the purpose of the meeting.
“There are times when it’s appropriate to meet in the office and there are times when it’s appropriate not to,” she said, “especially when you’re working with people that you want support and help from and you’re going to inconvenience them and they have to squeeze you in around a meal time, I think you should go on and pay for the meal.”
Donation supports approved nonprofit
In October 2013, Sutton spent $1,100 at a silent auction supporting the Africa’s Children Fund. The money, which Sutton said was a donation to the nonprofit, bought a picture of President Barack Obama for her office.
Based in Chamblee, the Africa’s Children Fund “provides assistance to under-served children and their families to improve the quality of their lives and civic contribution through educational, medical, housing and nutritional programs,” according to its website.
“That’s a charity that the county supports,” Sutton said. “We have supported that charity for many years. That year we were not able to support them at the level they requested through the general fund. They were having a fundraiser, and I committed to at least $1,000 from my budget.”
“I could have just given the $1,100 straight from my budget,” she added.
Sutton believes she is a political target
Sutton said she believes she is “absolutely” being targeted for her P-card use.
“It’s for political reasons and [by] people with controlling natures…to further political agendas,” she said, adding that she knows who has been targeting her but would not name the person.
“For years when people have been doing disingenuous stories about me and misrepresenting the facts, I’ve been silent,” Sutton said. But at this point in my life, I’ve got to set the facts straight and set the record straight.
“The commissioners aren’t the only elected officials that use the county P-cards…but our usage has been targeted,” Sutton said. “I can’t say one way or the other if there has been improprieties in anybody else’s P-cards, but when you only target a small number of people—seven, and only a couple out of the seven—you’re being disingenuous.”
Sutton said she has handled her budget well and even saved the county money, underspending by $19,366 in 2011; $11,354 in 2012; and $26,073 in 2013.
“As people follow the money, I want people to understand it and I want them to follow my service and see how well I serve the people of this district,” Sutton said.
“I am good with everything I’ve done,” she said.
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