DeKalb investigators overstate their case, hurt their credibility

DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May, right, and Mike Bowers. Jonathan Phillips/Special

DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May, right, and Mike Bowers. Jonathan Phillips/Special

Watching the decline of DeKalb County’s political and governing structures has been painful. The once well-run county has been hit by a series of scandals at various levels that have seriously damaged its reputation and future, and for good reason.

That said, the $850,000 investigative report released this week by former Attorney General Mike Bowers and his team, including investigator Richard Hyde, doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know. The problems that it found, while certainly worth addressing, also don’t justify the operatic, attention-grabbing rhetoric used in the report.

“Appalling corruption and a stunning absence of leadership in the DeKalb County government are a disgrace to its citizens and an embarrassment to our state,” the report states. “A pattern of corrosive and widespread misconduct has destroyed public confidence in the integrity of the governing authority…. If the public officers who have violated the community’s trust are truly concerned about the future of DeKalb County they will resign from office today.”

After reading language like that, citizens might expect to find evidence of lucrative contracts being steered to campaign contributors, of scores of do-nothing jobs filled by friends and relatives, of bribery, kickbacks and other high-level crimes. The report does not deliver on those expectations, and for that reason the language it uses is irresponsible.

Among other items, the report focuses on a trip to the Bahamas given away in a drawing among top-performing county employees as a reward. According to the report, it would have been fine if the trip was awarded directly to a particular employee, but doing so through a drawing makes it illegal. OK, but …. is that all you’ve got?

No, they also have a $36.45 movie and a $222 spa treatment charged to county taxpayers at a Hawaii hotel by interim County CEO Lee May. May claims to have repaid those charges, and also claims evidence of having done so. Certainly, the public has a right to know to know all that, just as it has a right to question’s May’s judgment in staying at a high-end hotel in Hawaii. But … is that all you’ve got?

No, they’ve also got a long list of donations by county commissioners to local charities, which the report argues are an illegal use of taxpayer funds. If so, then DeKalb needs a policy to bar such donations. But are such donations really “suspicious,” as the report describes them?

The truth is that most of the problems identified by the report can be resolved by tighter oversight of expense reports and budgets, turning the temporary ban on so-called “purchase cards” by county staff into a permanent ban, and creating an independent county ethics panel, all of which the Bowers-Hyde report usefully recommends. (Thanks to legislative action, DeKalb voters will get the chance to create such an ethics panel at the ballot box next month.)

Overall, though, the authors of the report err by venturing too far beyond their role as fact-finders to also serve as self-ordained judge, jury and political executioner. They seem to have gone off in search of a whale and instead come back with a few fish that they unconvincingly attempt to describe as that whale.

Which isn’t to say the whale isn’t out there. Results of the investigation are being referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is appropriate. Let’s see what more they find.