Filers of ethics complaints seek truth, accountability

rhea johnson at ethics board

Government watchdog Rhea Johnson said he likes DeKalb County. That’s why he has filed five ethics complaint—and counting.
“I am committed to DeKalb County,” said Johnson, a retired retail store developer and manager. “I enjoy living here. It has from time to time been a struggle, but I do enjoy living in the county.”
Johnson has filed ethics complaints against DeKalb County commissioners Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton and Stan Watson; interim county CEO Lee May and suspended county CEO Burrell Ellis.
In addition to Rhea Johnson, five others have filed ethics complaints, targeting commissioners Elaine Boyer, Kathie Gannon and Jeff Rader.
Johnson said he made the various filings because “the ethics board is almost the last resort to resolve many of the deficiencies in county government.”
Although he is “not sure if the ethics board—considering the way they are chosen—is up to the task,” Johnson said he has faith in the board because he has been through the training that the ethics board receives.
“I have been through the training side-by-side with the ethics board members, and I still have a degree of confidence in them that I’m willing to put this task in their court,” Johnson said.
“I know every one of them. I have faith in them,” Johnson said. “As long as their independence remains sacrosanct, I believe they can do the job. If their independence is breached, there is no possibility that they can succeed. That is why I’m putting the time, money and effort and the emotional strength that I have into this project.”
Johnson said his goal with his ethics complaints is “an appropriate outcome based on the best judgment of the members of the [ethics] board.”
“This is a test of the board, considering the fact that every member of the board is a political appointee,” Johnson said. “This puts an extremely difficult task on board members who are…politically appointed then they are nonpolitical in their judgment. It’s almost like being appointed to the Supreme Court.”
Johnson started working in DeKalb in 1968 and moved to the county in 1972. “I’ve lived on the same street since 1972,” he said.
Although he has attended “thousands of meetings,” Johnson is not a member of any government committees.
“I have almost scrupulously avoided participation in committees because of the fact that I highly value my independence,” he said. “Membership on committees can be a good thing for some people and can be a stepping stone for doing other things in public life. I’m not interested in that route.
“In almost every instance, the committees that other people serve on are also open to the public,” he said. “Many times you have a lot more flexibility and a lot more options in which meetings you want to attend. You can benefit just as much, perhaps more, by being a member of the audience and taking notes”
Johnson said he gathered the information for his ethics complaints by a “very close monitoring of the media” and from Open Records Requests, searches of public records with the assistance of his attorney and a paralegal, and from government contacts.
“I don’t anticipate winning every case,” Johnson said. “I will abide by and I will have to be satisfied with the judgment, and I will respect the judgment of the board members.”
There are more complaints in the works, Johnson said.
“My attorney and I are adamant about keeping the ethics board completely independent,” Johnson said. “That is very specific in the state law, but it is not defined at all in the organizational act.
All of my filings going forward are going to be focused on that fine line,” he said. “The ethics board can cross over that line or [interim CEO Lee May] can cross over that line or the commissioners can cross over that line.”

Monica Parrott

When asked via email for an interview, Monica Parrott refused, stating that she is not a public official “and should not become ‘the story.’”
Parrott, of Lithonia, accuses Commissioner Kathie Gannon and her assistant of “illegal and unethical activities” regarding the use of P-cards and county funds.
“It took courage for me to file the complaint and now it is your task to follow up with Commissioner Gannon regarding her illegal actions and behaviors,” Parrott wrote. “I believe that the complaint speaks for itself and that the officials on the Ethics Board must be the next one we hear from regarding these concerns. Commissioner Gannon should speak vocally on these issues as she has been wildly vocal regarding complaints against other commissioners and her ‘innocence’ from wrong doing.”
In Parrott’s complaint—in which her name is misspelled three times, although it is corrected in handwriting twice—the document refers to purchases spanning six years
“The person obviously has some good resources—there’s been no Open Records requests by this party, so they have some good resources,” Gannon said.
Gannon said that she was not surprised when a complaint was filed against her.
“When they did a complaint against Commissioner Rader, which was basically a lot of no substance, I indicated…to the press that they certainly are not going to let me slide. Someone will create something.”

Thomas Owens

Doraville resident Thomas Owens decided to file an ethics complaint against Commissioner Boyer and her assistant Robert Lundsten.
“I’m tired of all the lawlessness and lack of accountability that keeps going on,” said Owens, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army. “I’m frustrated just like all the other citizens in the county.”
“I was raised in the Army. I’ve been around Marines. We don’t tolerate lying, stealing or cheating. I’ve been honest all my life and I’m going to continue to be that way,” said Owens, who has lived in DeKalb since 1960.
Owens’ community involvement includes volunteering for the USO; he is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, Atlanta Vietnam Business Association, Dunwoody VFW and NRA.
Owens said the desired outcome of his ethics complaint is simple: “I want to see them both go to jail. I want them to be held accountable. I want to see them have a trial. I want them to own up to what they’ve done. That’s just my personal opinion.
“As long as whatever I do benefits the rest of the county and other citizens who don’t have a voice, I’m good with that,” Owens said. “It’s not about me. A lot of people are behind me in what I’m doing and like what I’m doing.”

 

Joseph Newton

Owens acquaintance Joseph Newton joined in the ethics complaint against Boyer.
Newton, who lives in Gwinnett “barely across the border,” got involved with DeKalb County politics and bureaucracy a few years ago after meeting Owens, who at the time was trying to work with the county to resolve some code and zoning concerns in Owens’ neighborhood.
“In this process, we started noticing the lifestyles of Boyer and Lundsten,” said Newton, a former law clerk for a state Supreme Court justice. “We kept noticing that they were spending a lot of money around town.”
The outcome he’s looking for: “They ought to go to jail—both of them,” Newton said.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis, a critical care nurse with more than 20 years of experience, is connected to three ethics complaints. She filed one against Commissioner Sutton and signed off on the one filed by Owens and Newton against Commissioner Boyer. Davis also filed a complaint against Kelvin Walton, the county’s suspended purchasing director, and Nina Hall, a suspended assistant to Ellis.
Walton and Hall have been tied to Ellis’ indictment.
“First, it’s the right thing to do,” Davis said about her ethics complaints. “Second, our mission is to increase transparency, ethics and accountability.
A DeKalb County resident since 1991, Davis in 2000 started Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter, a grassroots, faith-based, nonpartisan movement representing and protecting the interest of taxpayers and voters. The organization has fought against a plan to construct cell phone towers on school properties and the Transportation Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax referendum.
“The main thing that we strive for is to get to the truth,” said Davis, who gathered the information for her ethics complaint from Open Records requests. “We need to know what is being done with the taxpayers’ dollars. Are they being wasted? Is there mismanagement? Is there any possibility that there’s illegal activity? We have a responsibility to search for the truth at all cost.”
Timothy Brantley, who filed an ethics complaint against Commissioner Rader, did not return repeated phone calls and emails from The Champion.

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