Lawyer vows vigorous defense on DeKalb P-card charges
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By JIM WALLS
Sept. 23, 2015 — A DeKalb County commissioner’s lawyer is promising a full-court press against allegations that she misused a taxpayer-funded purchasing card.
Dwight Thomas, attorney for Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, huffed and puffed at Tuesday’s meeting of the DeKalb Board of Ethics, insisting he had a right to review documents in her investigative file before the board’s scheduled preliminary hearing in her case.
Thomas said he planned to rebut the charges “legally and factually” but needed to examine the documents to do so.
“You can’t cross-examine on something you don’t know about,” he said, asking for a postponement.
But the board declined, voting to go ahead with a preliminary hearing where an investigator would present his findings and prompting Thomas to waive his client’s right to the hearing. That cut Tuesday’s proceeding short, meaning the public won’t hear more on those findings until a full hearing, tentatively scheduled for December.
An ethics complaint was filed against Sutton after an outside auditor found her office could only provide receipts for 25 percent of its P-card purchases since 2006. Sutton spent more than $75,789, and her top aide Judy Brownlee about $25,000, with P-cards during that period.
Thomas told board members they should probably set aside “a couple days” for a full hearing on the allegations. He challenged an investigator’s claim that state law requires a receipt for every purchase and suggested he could have successfully refuted the allegations against Sutton if he’d had access to the investigative file.
Earlier Tuesday night, the ethics board voted to proceed to a full hearing on related P-card allegations against Brownlee.
Investigator Vic Hartman told the board that Brownlee used P-cards to buy herself $150 of gasoline and a $61 meal at Blue Ribbon Grill and spent about $2,300 on food-related purchases. She also attended an all-day political fund-raiser for Sutton on county time, he said.
Hartman said Brownlee told him she’d bought the gas in lieu of claiming mileage reimbursements for official travel. He said he later learned she actually had received mileage reimbursements during the period in question.
Regardless, Hartman said, “the policy is not to buy a gas card and convert it to personal use … That’s not part of the protocol for reimbursement.”
He said Brownlee told him 95 percent of the food purchases were for county-related purposes, but he could not confirm her estimate without receipts for the purchases.
Hartman said monthly reconciliation logs for the P-card purchases were created only after outside accounting firm O.H. Plunkett & Co. completed an October 2014 report on the discrepancies. He said Brownlee acknowledged that some of the logs had been backdated.
“They weren’t really done til way after the fact,” he said. “They weren’t really signed and created til the O.H. Plunkett audit.”
Sutton’s office eventually turned up receipts for 69 percent of its P-card purchases, a supplemental report by the accounting firm showed. That left about $13,000 of her P-card purchases without receipts.
The board tentatively set the Brownlee case for a Nov. 11 hearing.